The country church of Wicaco

Rev. Clay at Gloria Dei
The Rev. Jedu Clay, pastor at Gloria Dei during the 1850s and early 1860s, stands in the churchyard.


What is the most distinctive building in Philadelphia’s district of Queen Village? Gloria Dei, commonly called Old Swedes Church, has a just claim to the title. The enchantingly pretty church, begun in 1698, is the neighborhood’s oldest structure. The building and its churchyard provide a visible link with the early settlers who came to New Sweden over three centuries ago.

Gloria Dei stands on ground donated by the First Family of Queen Village—the Swansons. The progenitors of the family in America, Sven and Brigetta Gunnarsson, sailed on the Kalmar Nyckel with two small children, arriving in New Sweden in 1640. Brigetta was pregnant when she boarded the ship in Gothenburg, and gave birth to their son Olle while still at sea.

Kalmar_Nyckel_by_Jacob_Hägg_cropped (1)
Representation of the Kalmar Nyckel.

The Swedish Crown sought to obtain settlers for its American colony by making use of men who had been rounded up for alleged crimes such as poaching or desertion from the army. Sven Gunnarsson was one of these cast-offs from the mother country and arrived in the New World in servitude, laboring for close to five years on a tobacco plantation in what is now the state of Delaware.

Around 1645, soon after becoming a free man, Gunnarsson moved with his family to Kingsessing, today a neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia. He operated the newly built gristmill on Cobbs Creek—the first in the Delaware Valley—and became known as “Sven the Miller.”

Within a decade, New Sweden came to an end after Dutch forces defeated the Swedes in several skirmishes on the Delaware. Governor Peter Stuyvesant took over administration of the colony, ruling it from New Amsterdam (now New York City). But even with the addition of new settlers from the Netherlands—and soon from the British Isles—for a number of years Swedes and Finns remained the majority of the population. (Finland at that time was incorporated into the Swedish state.)

In 1664, Sven and his three adult sons—Sven, Olle, and Anders—received a patent from Stuyvesant’s successor for a large tract of land that extended west from the banks of the Delaware. Only months later, the Dutch were forced to yield their colony to the English, but the English governor confirmed the patent in 1671.

The property that Gunnarsson and his sons received formed a significant portion of land that had originally been “sold” by a sachem of the Lenape people to the Dutch West Indies Company in 1646: “A piece of land called by their people Wiqquachkoingh [Wicaco], located on the South River of New Netherland. … The land extends from the south end of a marsh (running between the thicket and the forest) … to a small stream, forming there a round and rather high point nearly opposite the south point of Schutter’s Island [later known as Windmill Island and Smith’s Island], and inland five or six miles.

Sven Gunnarsson and his sons, who took the last name Svensson (later Anglicized to “Swanson”), established their homesteads on high ground close to where the small Wicaco Creek flowed into the Delaware. The Lenape people had used the land for centuries as a camp. After the death of Brigetta in 1671, Sven Gunnarsson resided with the family of his youngest son, Anders, in a house that lay several dozen yards north of the creek (the stream now flows in the sewers beneath Christian Street). The family of the eldest son, Sven, lived further south, close to where Washington Avenue is today.

In May 1675, the English Governor Lovelace authorized the Swedish settlers living above Darby Creek to construct a new church in their vicinity, which would be located at Wicaco. Sven Gunnarsson’s children granted a plot of land to the north of Sven’s house for the purpose. Their father did not sign the grant; he was approaching 70 and might have been infirm, since he died a few years later.

The church building, according to several accounts, was fortified in order to withstand any attacks from Native American warriors. It was probably constructed of logs, which at a certain point were covered with wooden siding.

The church was consecrated on Trinity Sunday, June 5, 1677, and the congregation was entrusted to a minister named Jacob Fabritius, born in Silesia (now in Poland), who mostly preached in a dialect of low Dutch (also called low German). Fabritius was well educated but was considered a “turbulent” fellow, who was subject to violent outbursts. The Lutheran elders in New York City wrote about him in 1670: “He is very fond of wine and brandy and knows how to curse and swear, too. In his apparel he is like a soldier, red from head to feet. He married a woman here with five children and has dressed them all in red.”

Four years later, his wife, Annetje (Anna), complained in a New York court that Fabritius had forced her “the whole winter to sleep in the garret under the roof of the house, which truly is a very hard thing to happen to an old woman, and all this for a drunken and constant profaner of God’s name, a deviant Lutheran preacher.” The court ordered Fabritius to hand over the key to the house to his wife, and in the future “not to presume to molest her in any way.”

But the husband and wife soon reconciled and moved to what is now Delaware. Fabritius was embroiled in several more court suits there, including on charges that he had acted as the ringleader of a group of rioters. However, he settled down once he had become established at Wicaco, and preached there for close to 15 years, even though he was blind for most of that period and often complained of not having enough money. During his early years at Wicaco, the minister lived upriver at Shackamaxon (now the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia), and like many of his parishioners, had to travel to the church by canoe.

Fabritius retired due to old age and ailments in 1693 (he died three years later), and for the next few years the Wicaco congregation had no minister—despite their entreaties to the Lutheran authorities in Sweden to send one. Finally, in 1696, King Carl XI commanded the archbishop in Stockholm to send two clergymen to his country’s former colony.

The new ministers, Eric Biörck and Andreas Rudman, both 28 years old, had studied at seminary together, and this was to be their first major assignment. After traveling to England, they set out from Plymouth on March 23, 1697, for the three-month journey across the Atlantic. For the use of their new parishioners they carried a chest of Bibles, hymnals, and prayer books—though many of the pages were still unbound. The ship endured at least five heavy storms along the way, and was compelled to drift for days with its sails torn and its masts broken.

The ministers finally disembarked in Maryland on June 24. Four days later, they met with the vice governor, William Markham, who resided, in Biörck’s words, in “a pretty little city, Philadelphia, built and inhabited by those weeds, the Quakers.” Rudman later noted that Philadelphia was no more than the length of “two musket shots” north of the church at Wicaco. The city had over 3000 inhabitants at the time and had been carved out of the forest on land that was purchased from the Swanson brothers.

A couple years later, Rudman described Philadelphia again in a letter he sent to Sweden: “If anyone were to see Philadelphia who had not been there [before], he would be astonished beyond measure [to learn] that it was founded less than twenty years ago. Even Uppsala, etc., would have to yield place to it. All the houses are built of brick, three or four hundred of them, and in every house a shop, or Gatbodh [a house with a shopfront], so that whatever one wants at any time he can have, for money.”

But he also expressed reservations about the people from England who had settled in Philadelphia and the surrounding area: “When the English arrived, they did not all come empty-handed. Some were wealthy capitalists, who usurped property the Swedes held, especially along the water, cleared the land and made it bald, and crowded the Swedes, who had neither the will nor the understanding to strive with them. Therefore, they sold their precious land along the water and had to go up into the country. For the most part, they were cheated.”

The ministers decided that Biörck would take charge of the church at Christina (today’s Wilmington, Del.), while Rudman would officiate at Wicaco. He preached for the first time in Wicaco’s wooden church on July 4, 1697.

Immediately, it became apparent that the church buildings required extensive repairs and were also too tiny for the size of their congregations. About 1200 people were listed as members of the two churches, with 529 at Wicaco alone. Rudman wrote to one of his professors in Sweden, “The churches are old and decrepit. Therefore we, with the help of the Lord, will exert ourselves to build new ones.”

While Biörck began right away to hire workmen for his new church at Christina—which was to be located in the churchyard not far from the old one—Rudman discovered that the issue was more controversial in his district. Parishioners who lived in Kingsessing and other areas along the Schuylkill wanted the new church to be built nearer to their homes, whereas people who lived along the Delaware insisted that it remain at Wicaco. Rudman was exasperated by the dispute—which delayed construction for close to a year—and at one point threatened to go back to Sweden. Finally, the congregation agreed to leave the decision to the ministers, who decided that the new building would be built next to the old one at Wicaco.

A number of parishioners helped with tasks during the construction of both churches. But the major work was performed by a group of top Philadelphia craftsmen, mainly trained in England. They included mason Joseph Yard, John Smart for much of the major carpentry, and master carpenter John Harrison (who likely apprenticed at the Carpenters’ Company in London) for the finishing and interior work. Yard and Harrison brought their sons as assistants, and Yard used the services of a free Black man, Dick, on both churches “as he knew best how to prepare and carry the mortar.”

Yard began laying the foundations at Christina in May 1698, and foundation work at Wicaco began the following October. As he and the other craftsmen completed a task on one church they moved on to the other.

Who designed the two churches? In that period, master carpenters engaged in construction work generally carried out their own designs. Despite its smaller size, Gloria Dei resembles in several respects some of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches, such as St. James Piccadilly (1684), and the memory of similar buildings in England probably influenced carpenter John Harrison or mason Joseph Yard when they sketched out their plans for the churches along the Delaware.

The south door, built 1703-1704.

It took just a year to complete the church at Christina, which was consecrated on Trinity Sunday, June 4, 1699. The church at Wicaco was consecrated one year later—June 2, 1700. A large crowd of people came from the city of Philadelphia and from farms up and down the river to attend the Wicaco ceremony, join in the songs, and share the afternoon banquet. It is possible that William Penn was present, since he was residing in Pennsylvania at the time. Eric Biörck gave the morning sermon, first in Swedish and later (on request) in English, and the Anglican minister of Christ Church in Philadelphia spoke at noon. Biörck christened the new church Guds Ära Hus, (the House of God’s Glory) or Gloria Dei.

In 1703-04, rooms were constructed on the north and south sides of the church, and a cupola was added later for its bell. And over the centuries, many additional generations have been buried in the churchyard—some with visible gravestones but most without. But it is still not difficult when visiting this shrine to imagine it as the country church at Wicaco, in the days when it was surrounded by river, woods, and fields, and “the pretty little city” of Philadelphia lay two musket shots to the north.

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