It is a wood and brick church, built in the ‘English’ style around 1700. It is the oldest church building in Pennsylvania and the oldest surviving brick building in Philadelphia. Originally a Swedish Lutheran church, the interior retains that Scandinavian look with white paintwork and models of ships hanging from the ceiling. Some of the appointments, including carved angels and an open Bible, are believed to be original.
They claim to be the oldest surviving congregation in America. Betsy Ross, who (legend has it, although many historians believe the story to be apocryphal) designed the first American flag in consultation with George Washington, was married from this church in 1777. When a local coalition of Swedish Lutheran churches dissolved in 1843, the congregation applied for membership in what was then the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (this is still the denomination’s official name, although ‘The Episcopal Church’ is much more commonly used). They say that they are (quoting from their website) ‘an inviting, welcoming, sustaining, and loving community [who] celebrate our differences and uniquenesses [and] preserve and build upon the beauty, tradition, and heritage of this sacred place.’ As such, though a fully operating church, Old Swedes is also a major historical site and tourist attraction in the city of Philadelphia.
Though only a short walk from the swanky Philadelphia areas of Queens Village and Society Hill, the church sits very near the Delaware River on land squeezed between Interstate 95, a major north-south US highway, and Christopher Columbus Boulevard (formerly called Delaware Avenue), originally a narrow footpath but now a wide concourse flanked by big box stores.
The rector led the service. A layperson from the congregation gave the readings.
What was the name of the service?Ash Wednesday Service.
How full was the building?
Sadly, only around a dozen congregants.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but once we sat down there were a few smiles and waves.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not particularly, but as there was plenty of room to stretch out it was fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet but with some friendly whispering.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Please stand and sing hymn 142’ (‘Lord who, throughout these forty days’ to the tune of St Flavian).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer 1979 and the Hymnal 1982.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ was played with some aplomb, though I could not see it. I understand it to be an opus of Hook & Hastings of Boston dating from 1903, as rebuilt and enlarged in 1993 by RJ Brunner of Silver Spring, Pennsylvania.
Did anything distract you?
Not a huge distraction, but spotlights trained on the balcony and associated supports seemed a little out of place in such a beautiful space.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle of the road, formal but friendly. Their website says that their liturgical practice ‘incorporates elements from Holy Catholic traditions … but with a distinctive character to each celebration.’
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The rector’s delivery was slow and considered. The fact that he spoke from a small pulpit somewhat hidden beneath a balcony didn't help. There is a glorious pulpit in the center that would have helped, I think.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It is hard to grasp the meaning of Lent. Self-denial such as giving up chocolate, alcohol, or whatever, is meaningless. Rather, the goal is to empty ourselves, to make us ready to be filled by God, to be reminded that we are just ashes and will return to ashes. What is important in Lent is to be humble and open to transformation.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The readings – I never thought I would say that! They were so clearly delivered by a congregant that their message was engaging and lovely to hear.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a jarring moment at the end of the service when the organist shouted out that there was still a hymn to be sung. Presumably this had been forgotten by the rector. As we could not see the organist, it not only made me jump a little, but it also shattered the contemplative atmosphere.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing, but then again it was Ash Wednesday, so people just left quietly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — It's a lovely place, and though the congregation is small they seem to be a nice bunch. However, there were so few and they clearly all knew one another, so not sure if I would return often. That said, I would happily pop in again, particularly in the summer, as I imagine this space to be quite spectacular with sunlight flooding in through the windows.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. It was subdued and small in almost every sense, but I was glad to be there.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That so few people were there, sad to say. Clearly, this was not a regular service, but I got the feeling that this is a small congregation. Yet it's such a spectacular and historic location – one would have hoped it would be thriving.