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Old Swedes Church officially joins First State National Historic Park

Old Swedes Church in Wilmington celebrated its addition to the Delaware’s First State National Historic Park Monday.

It is the oldest church in the United States that remains intact as originally built and is still used as a house of worship.

Descendants of Swedish colonists who arrived on the Kalmar Nyckel in the 1630s used local Brandywine granite stones and bricks that served as ship ballast to construct the edifice of the Church of Sweden's original structure.

The church was consecrated after its completion in 1699 -  at which time it adopted the name Holy Trinity. Long since an Episcopal parish, the church once held Lutheran services in Swedish until 1791.

The bell tower (the original had once hung in a nearby walnut tree), a stove and buttressing additions were added later, although the original pulpit remains and stands as undoubtedly the oldest in this country. Old Swedes was officially declared a national historic landmark in 1961.

Its National Park designation is sure to attract tourists and Reverend Patricia Downing – who currently presides over services there - is eager to share the church’s history with a new audience in a unique way.

“We’ll include it as an opportunity to come and visit, to worship in this space that has been around for 300 plus years. A lot of tears have been shed here, a lot of ‘halleluiahs’ have been spoken here, and these walls ring with that, and come and be a part of that.”

The church is already a popular travel destination for Swedish tourists interested in their heritage – and the church maintains records of  17th century Swedish settlers – some of which arrived on the Kalmar Nyckel as far back as 1648.

Park Superintendent Ethan McKinley says the story of Old Swedes and other locales around Delaware detail the history of the country in its  infancy.

“Defining the American identity is really a big portion of what this park is about," he said. "People were able to come here and practice their own religions freely. They were able to identify with their country freely. But that identity with their country eventually became more cosmopolitan, so it’s a really incredible story we have to tell.”

The state’s first and only National Park was established last December after Congress passed the First State National Historic Park Act, combining a variety of significant locales across Delaware to focus on the state’s pre-colonial heritage.

Senator Tom Carper, who was instrumental in getting the Act passed, believes the park would attract draw history buffs and casual tourists unaware of other options the state has to offer.

"Some people come to Delaware they love our beaches; some people like to come here because we're the home of tax-free shopping; some people come here to play golf. But we have a great new attraction which helps make all the rest work. Our hope is - when they come to learn the rich history and heritage of this state and how it led up to the ratification of the Constitution - that while they're coming to take in all that, they will partake in our other treasures."

Rev. Downing added that not only will the designation be a boon to the church and its property, but the surrounding community will also benefit - possibly as a catalyst for rejuvenation of Wilmington's East Side.

"The more people we get walking these streets, the more it helps the neighborhood feel vital and vibrant, and the stores and the shops all can benefit from that as well."

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