Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
Ownership and Administration. Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Diocese of Delaware; maintained by the Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church Foundation, Inc., Wilmington.
Significance. This is the oldest surviving church built by a Swedish congregation in the Delaware Valley. No other structure is so closely related historically and geographically to the pioneer Swedish settlement on the Christina River, and none has retained its architectural integrity to so marked a degree. From every standpoint, Holy Trinity is a preeminent survival of the Swedish settlement on the Delaware.
The construction postdates by many years the fall of New Sweden to the Dutch in 1655; largely English in form, the church includes many additions to the original building. Nevertheless, it was built while the Swedish heritage was still a dominant influence in the Delaware Valley. For nearly a century, Swedish Lutheran missionary pastors were assigned. Beneath the church and in the venerable cemetery adjacent to it rest the remains of thousands of early Swedish settlers, many in unmarked graves.
The first churches of New Sweden were of rude log construction, a style later adopted by American frontiersmen. The earliest religious services of the colony were held in Fort Christina. Later, in 1667, the local congregation built a wooden church at Tranhook (Cranehook), on the south bank of the Christina River near its mouth. The new church received little direct supervision from the homeland for the next 32 years. Then, in 1697, three Swedish missionary pastors were sent out to revive it. As the first step, a new church site was chosen, at the burial ground long used by the settlers around Fort Christina. On May 28, 1698, the builders laid the first foundation stone, and on Trinity Sunday, June 4, 1699, the church was consecrated as Helga Trefaldighet Kyrcka (Holy Trinity Church).
The original structure was of the utmost simplicity. Rectangular in shape, it had a brick floor, shingled roof, and gabled ends, without tower, belfry, gallery, or porch. The ceiling was plastered, the pews built of pine, and the altar railing and pulpit carved from walnut. Around 1750, the arched south porch was added; and, in 1774, the gallery, reached by outside stairs. The tower and belfry date from 1802.
After the last Swedish pastor departed, in 1791, jurisdiction over the church was transferred by the Swedish Missionary Society to the Protestant Episcopal Church. After 1830, when the congregation moved to a new building, the old church deteriorated badly. Only one service annually was held until the church was reopened in 1842. At that time, wooden benches were substituted for the pews except in the gallery, wooden flooring placed over the original bricks, and the gallery stairs moved inside. Restoration in 1899 corrected these alterations.
Present Appearance. Holy Trinity is maintained in excellent condition and is open to visitors. In 1946-47, the Garden Club of Wilmington restored the old churchyard. A short distance from the church is the restored Hendrickson House, a fine Swedish stone dwelling dating from about 1690 and recently moved from Essington, Pa. It serves as a museum and library devoted to Swedish colonial life on the Delaware.
Holy Trinity is rich in objects that date from its origin at the end of the 17th century or demonstrate its traditional Swedish ties. The original altar is preserved within a later one of marble; and the aged pulpit, carved in 1698, is still in use. Portraits of the early Swedish pastors, some of whom are buried beneath the church, are hung in the vestry. A former pastor, Eric Bjork, in 1718 donated a silver communion service, which is used upon special occasions. The altar cloth was a gift from the late King Gustav V of Sweden, in 1950. The King himself embroidered the central cross in gold thread. All these objects, displayed in the setting of the 17th-century interior, remind the visitor that this venerable church is one of the most significant and memorable links between Swedish America and the present. 
NHL Designation: 11/05/61
Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005