Be a part of history - and worship, too

PHOTOS: STEPHANIE AARONSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Rev. Joy Segal of Gloria Dei Church in South Philly pushes her congregants to "get their hands dirty" tackling inequality.
PHOTOS: STEPHANIE AARONSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Rev. Joy Segal of Gloria Dei Church in South Philly pushes her congregants to "get their hands dirty" tackling inequality.
Posted: July 15, 2013

TUCKED AWAY in Pennsylvania's first city is Pennsylvania's first church, a simple stone building that has weathered wars, served generations of the faithful and watched Philly rise and change around it.

Gloria Dei Church, colloquially known as Old Swedes', has occupied a block between Water Street and Columbus Boulevard near South Philadelphia's Queen Village section for more than 300 years.

Today, the Episcopal church is a "sanctuary in the middle of the city" that welcomes all comers - not just Swedes and Episcopalians - said its pastor, the Rev. Joy Segal.

In addition, "We strive to step outside our walls and do work of the Gospel in the community," she said. "We don't just rest on our 336 years of history."

Who we are: Gloria Dei is the oldest church in continuous use in Pennsylvania, and the second-oldest Swedish church in the country, after its sister church, Holy Trinity in Wilmington, Del.

Construction began in 1698, 16 years after William Penn first set foot in Pennsylvania. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1942, six years before Independence Hall.

The historic congregation is now a "family-sized group," Segal said, with somewhere between 50 and 70 members.

Sweden on the Schuylkill: Sharing the church's walled parcel of land is a cemetery housing the remains of prominent Swedes, including several heroes of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, as well as scholars and artists.

Models of the ships that brought the first Swedish settlers to America, the Fogel Grip and Kalmar Nyckel, hang in the main chapel.

What we believe: Segal, now in her seventh year as Gloria Dei's first female leader, describes the Episcopal faith as being "open to all seekers of deeper meaning."

An Anglican Christian denomination, it's similar to Roman Catholicism in that hymns are sung, sacraments are performed and ordained priests preach from a Bible, the Book of Common Prayer. But Anglicans, of course, don't answer to the pope.

Another thing that's different, according to Segal, is the overall atmosphere of the services, which in Gloria Dei's case are held Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m.

"We've stepped beyond that doctrinal and dogmatic place that says 'you have to believe this,' " she said. "We invite people to come as they are, to tell us what they believe, so that we can help each other understand the mystery of God."

Big moral issue we're grappling with: Since taking over Gloria Dei, Segal has worked to turn her congregation's attention to social-justice issues. "It's one thing to sit in a comfortable setting on Sunday and talk about inequality, and another to apply that attitude to the rest of the week," she said.

Segal pushes her congregants to "get their hands dirty," organizing service trips every other year to Guatemala.

What we're known for: The church has an active role in Queen Village, hosting a number of community events, including spring and fall flea markets. The Queen Village Neighbors Association meets here. Members of the congregation tutor kids at neighborhood schools.

Gloria Dei is also famous nationally and internationally. Scholars of Swedish history regularly visit, and the American arm of the Church of Sweden worships here one Sunday afternoon each month, celebrating its traditional service entirely in Swedish.

Something that would probably surprise people: For a church so rich in history, Gloria Dei has a fairly laid-back atmosphere. "We're not the type of church that you need to get dressed up to go to on Sunday," said Segal, who wears casual clothes underneath her stole (a liturgical vestment worn around the priest's neck).

"We want people to feel welcomed and a part of our family as quickly as possible."

God vs. cellphones: The one thing that isn't welcome is cellphone use. It's something that Segal will politely remind guests about at weddings and funerals. Her regular Sunday congregation knows better, she said.

Twitter: @Vellastrations

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