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Foto Friday

February 12, 2010

This is a detail of a small Gothic Revival structure built on the grounds of Old Swedes or Christ Church, located in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.

The main building, which still hosts an active congregation, was built 1760 (altered 1837) by descendants of the 17th century Swedish colonists in Delaware. The site was donated in 1758 by the Rambo family, many of whom are buried in the churchyard along with Holstein, DeHaven, Coates, Matson, and Cox ancestors.

A brief overview from a June 29, 2009 article on Old Swedes Church written by Walter Ault for The Times Herald. After reading it, this site sounds like it could use a workshop with Partners for Sacred Places before it’s too late.

According to Reverend William Morris Longstreth, a service at his church ordinarily draws eight to ten parishioners. However, it doesn’t lessen the importance of the church, being that it is about 250 years old, is well preserved and has played a big role in Montgomery County history. Furthermore, it is a lasting icon of one of the earliest groups of Europeans to settle in this part of the county: The Swedes.

The church in question is Christ Church (Old Swedes), Upper Merion, located at 740 River Road in Swedesburg. A book about the history of the church by Rev. William P.C. Loane reveals that the Swedes established one of the earliest colonies in the New World in 1638, in Wilmington, Delaware, with the settlers spreading out to Philadelphia in succeeding years. Between 1655 and 1675, the book reveals, the Swedes tired of intermittent Dutch and British rule, and consequently began moving westward up the Schuylkill River.  This migration continued for many years and, as Rev Loane’s book points out, a man named Gunnar Rambo led a group of Swedes to this area around 1707.

According to the book, local Swedes originally met for religious services in the home of the son of Gunnar Rambo, also named Gunnar, with the first recorded service in 1733. The Swedes, the book says, were deeply devout Lutherans and therefore eventually insisted on having a separate church building. As a result “a simple log cabin was built in 1735 on Gunnar Rambo’s land,” which served as both a church and school until Christ Church was built.

The old church sits on approximately one acre of land a stone’s throw from the Schuylkill River; next to a churchyard and walled-in cemetery as old as the church, as Rev. Longstreth pointed out, with some grave markers so old that all inscriptions are worn away.  Many notable people are buried in this cemetery, including Sarah Priest, a famous Civil War nurse.

The church is rather small and plain architecturally. It is a stone, plastered-over structure with a tower rather than a steeple. Christ Church was dedicated June 25, 1760, according to Rev. Loane’s book, and expanded in 1837.  The book states that the “nave or body of the church, up to the line of the transepts or wing, is the portion which was built in 1760.”

Much of the original portion of the church is just as it was in 1760, except that the pews have been replaced, according to Rev. Longstreth, who commutes from Pottstown.   While the church’s exterior is plain, the interior is beautiful despite chipped paint and plaster. “The outside doesn’t look like much, but the interior is beautiful,” Reverend Longstreth said. Inside the church are thick, heavy doors with iron hinges; stained glass windows that illustrate bible scenes; red carpeting; beige pews with brown trim; a marble baptismal font and a pipe organ, with the pipes taking up an entire wall.

Christ Church’s history is detailed on a wall at the rear of the church. It states that after crossing the Schuylkill River at Swedesford on Dec. 13, 1777, General George Washington and his troops visited Christ Church and encamped there before going on to Valley Forge. In 1876, the history says, Prince Oscar, son of King Oscar of Sweden, came to Christ Church for a visit.

It also says that in 1980 Christ Church was included in the list of historic places of Pennsylvania. The Swedish pioneers who settled here had a lasting impact on the surrounding area. Swedesburg, Swedeland, and Swede Street are in Norristown; two streets in Bridgeport, Rambo and Holstein streets, are named after Swedish families.

More photos at flickr

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