Old Swedes Church, Wilmington, Delaware, USA

Old Swedes Church, Wilmington, Delaware, USA


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Old Swedes Church
Location: Wilmington, Delaware, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 September 2006, 10:00am

The building

Built in 1699, this is said to be the oldest church in the United States still in use as a church. The building sits in the middle of a green, shady churchyard and is of grey fieldstone with red brick porches and a white belfry. The interior is small and plain, with a gallery, box pews, and a tiny black walnut altar with marble top. To the left is a black walnut pulpit with canopy – the oldest known pulpit in the United States. Behind the altar is a stained glass window of Christ blessing the children. Another window, by Tiffany, depicts the Holy Family, with Mary spinning yarn while the boy Jesus plays with one of Joseph's carpenter's squares that bears a prophetic resemblance to a child-size cross.

The church

Old Swedes Church was established as a Swedish Lutheran church, but was sold to the Episcopalians in 1791. It is one of two churches comprising Trinity parish. The parish conducts a strong outreach to the community, offering masses in both English and Spanish and sponsoring many programs, including housing initiatives, a homeless shelter, after-school youth programs, and an alcohol and drug ministry, as well as a mission to Honduras.

The neighborhood

Wilmington is the largest city in Delaware. Once a proud shipbuilding and manufacturing center, the city was dealt a death blow by the massive Interstate Highway project, which pushed Interstate 95 directly through the heart of downtown Wilmington, cutting the city in half. The once stately Market Street, lined with Victorian offices, art deco stores, and an ornate opera house that looks like an oversized wedding cake, now hosts discount shops and cheap eateries – although the opera house has been restored to its full grandeur. Old Swedes Church is sandwiched in between the railroad tracks and blocks of clean but decidedly plebeian row houses. To its credit, though, the city is trying to make a comeback. Delaware's liberal banking laws have attracted major commerce to Wilmington, and the transformation of the former shipyards into commercial and cultural properties has spurred renewed interest in downtown.

The cast

The Revd Brad Hinton, celebrant; Terrence Gaus-Woollen, organist; Betsy Chapin, crucifer; and Roger Hawkins, acolyte. Father Hinton wore a green chasuble with gold lining, and the crucifer and acolyte wore albs.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

I would guess the church could hold about 120. There were about 40 present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I was taking pictures in the churchyard before mass, several people said good morning and invited me to come in. As I entered by the west porch, a lady said hello and handed me a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

The box pew was a bit small, but comfortable enough. There were no kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The usual visiting among people who know each other well. The altar party had assembled on the west porch and were really making quite a bit of racket.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Prayer Book 1979, Hymnal 1982, Wonder Love and Praise, and a service leaflet. The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, was also in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ and piano. The organ, a small but very nice classically voiced instrument with a tremulant that can only be described as ethereal, was played masterfully by Mr Gaus-Woollen.

Did anything distract you?

The northern ear begins to detect the Dixie accent in Delaware, and Father Hinton's accent was a fine example of it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A low mass according to Rite II, altered to be gender-neutral. There was no gospel procession; rather, Father read the gospel from the pulpit. The sacred elements were not elevated at the consecration, but Father did perform the so-called "little elevation" at the conclusion of the eucharistic prayer. The hymns were for the most part traditional, except for the communion hymn, which Mr Gaus-Woollen led from the piano. The sanctus was to the tune of Land of Rest, one of my favorite hymn tunes.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – Father Hinton spoke in a quiet, intimate style in that charming Dixie accent of his. He had notes in front of him, but glanced at them only once or twice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father expanded upon the Old Testament reading for the day, Deuteronomy 4:1-2 and 6-9 ("What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just...") to speak of the meaning of the Labor Day holiday. Although we tend to celebrate Labor Day by going to the beach and eating barbecue, historically the day marks the great struggle for hard-gained rights of the working class – rights that are disappearing again as immigrant workers are exploited while executive salaries are more bloated than ever. Today's so-called minimum wage is not enough to live on. As Christians we have taken a vow to respect the dignity of all mankind, but how can we reconcile this vow to the way in which workers are treated? Everyone is entitled to the right to earn a living.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Worshiping in such an historic place was heavenly. The building's small size led to an intense feeling of intimacy, and the acoustics were excellent.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Whenever they sat down, the altar party crossed their legs. This allowed the acolyte, Mr Hawkins, to reveal a sockless foot shod in a scruffy brown deck shoe. Always the stickler for appropriate haberdashery, Miss Amanda has only one thing to say: Ugh!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I could scarcely put my notebook away before being approached by several people who welcomed me to Old Swedes Church and hoped that I would come again. One gentleman went to fetch me a brochure about the church. At the door, Father Hinton introduced himself as Brad. I did not tell him that I was Amanda – he'll deduce that soon enough.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Pitchers of lemonade and iced tea were served from a folding table in the churchyard. The lemonade was sweet and cold – very refreshing. I chatted a bit with the organist, Mr Gaus-Woollen, about various churches in New York with which he was familiar. I wanted, though, to take a pair of scissors to his eyebrows.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – I liked the church very much and would gladly return. Everyone seemed very friendly, and the parish is involved in a number of worthwhile activities. Together with a dignified liturgy and good music – who could ask for anything more?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The altar party crossing their legs when they sat. I'll say it again – Ugh!

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools