Question of the Week
What is the name of Pennsylvania's oldest church?
Answer: Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Episcopal Church
The Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Episcopal Church in South Philadelphia is the oldest church in Pennsylvania and among the oldest in the country. Swedish colonists held their first Christian worship in 1677 in a log blockhouse along the Delaware River. Land owner Sven Svenson donated ground to the Swedish Church for a permanent structure, and in 1698 laid the foundation for Gloria Dei. Gloria Dei served as a Swedish Lutheran Church for 150 years until it became part of the Episcopal Church.
The church at Christian Street and Columbus Boulevard stands as a living monument to Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhood and earliest European settlers. The first Swedish colonists came to the New World in 1638 as a business venture and settled in the area around Wilmington, Delaware. A second group established a settlement at what would become Philadelphia in 1642 under Swedish governor John Printz. But this prime riverfront land was not uninhabited when the first Swedish colonists arrived. The people that came to be called Delaware Indians, along with other native groups, had already been living, hunting, and fishing in Delaware and Ohio River valleys for more than 10,000 years. The Delawares in South Philadelphia called this area Weccacoe—“peaceful place.”
Gloria Dei was the first church in colonial America to have an organ played, over three centuries ago. It has had several organs since then and currently uses a Hook and Hastings of Boston organ that has served the church for over 100 years. In 1999, Gloria Dei completed an almost total restoration in time for the 300th anniversary of the church building. The church, its buildings, and historic burial grounds are open to the public for tours.
HSP holds records of Old Swedes’ Church and a number of pamphlets and other materials, as well as images of the church. We also have a small collection of records and photographs from the 1940s and 1950s related to Gloria Dei Church, Children’s Club (MSS018 and PG063).
Image: Southeast View of Old Swedes' Church, watercolor by William L. Breton (1828)
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.