Delaware is the only U.S. state I’ve visited where I was able to see every one of its counties—all three of them. From their Atlantic beaches to their largest cities, they had one thing in common—churches that not only add to a locale’s profile but also reflect centuries of history. These are my favorites.
#1 Holy Trinity Church (Wilmington)
Delaware’s Swedish origins can be found at Holy Trinity Church, unofficially called Old Swedes Church. It’s the oldest church in the United States still used for worship as it was originally built—in 1698–99, not long after the Swedes surrendered their New Sweden colony to the Dutch New Netherland—and a rare example of Swedish colonial architecture in the United States. Constructed from local blue granite and bricks from Sweden that had been used as ships’ ballast, Holy Trinity was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. Running 60’ long, 30’ wide, and 20’ high, the walls measure six feet thick at the foundation, tapering up to three feet at the window level. An open cupola with a bell, capped by a weather vane, tops the central bell tower, which was erected in 1802. (Until then, a bell was hung from a walnut tree outside.) Inside, pews were distributed according to services rendered in the erection of the building, not according to wealth or social rank. There’s an original black walnut pulpit and a church chest from 1713. Subsequent alterations include the south portico and northern buttresses in 1740, a balcony in 1774, and the replacement of plain glass windows with stained glass in 1899. The burial grounds around the church lend it a rural aspect, making it easy for me to appreciate what this place was like more than three centuries ago. About 15,000 people are buried here (the oldest legible stone marking is from 1718), including Revolutionary War veterans, U.S. senators, a Civil War general, a bishop, the first mayor of Wilmington, and President Cleveland’s secretary of state. Although services held in Swedish were discontinued sometime in the 18th century, the church retains strong Swedish roots, honored in 1988 by a visit from the king and queen of Sweden to mark the 350th anniversary of the New Sweden colony.
#2 St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church (Wilmington)
The only active church in Delaware to be founded by St. John Neuman was a principal institution for worship for thousands of Irish immigrants. The handsome brick church with white limestone trim was consecrated in 1858. Referred to at the time as a “model of beauty, simplicity, solidity and economy,” the church represents an example of the Byzantine Revival architectural style. It measures about 100’ long and 60’ wide. My favorite part is the front façade. The colors of the arched stained-glass windows are clearly visible. On either side of the central tower, built in 1881 and used as a belfry, I found a couple of recessed brick crosses. The two corner towers are set diagonally, offering an unusual deviation, like angel wings welcoming worshippers. All three towers are topped by onion-shaped domes with crosses. Having survived a fire in 1966, which destroyed a wooden belfry and a dome, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
#3 Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter (Wilmington)
Opened in 1818, the brick Cathedral of St. Peter was executed in the Romanesque style. Extended to its current length of 60’ in 1829, the church received its wonderful bell tower with a silver cupola in the same year. I approached the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilmington via its front staircase, graded to follow the gentle slope of the street. Three blue doors, the center one topped by a fanlight underneath an arch with a simple keystone, grant access inside. The coffered ceiling is spectacular, and the bright sanctuary features marble floors and the cathedra, the bishop’s chair. I hunted for some of the 45 angels in the cathedral, including those in stained glass and the marble figure holding the holy water font. Especially impressive are the Munich-style stained-glass windows that were added around 1900. Among them, Adam and Eve are getting kicked out of Eden, practically stumbling over the serpent that did them in; there’s also the Nativity, the wedding at Cana, Mary’s assumption into heaven, and perhaps the most curious of them all, the Last Supper, with only six apostles, and St. Veronica and her shroud in a side panel.
#4 People’s Church of Dover (Dover)
Established by a group of Methodists who withdrew from another church, People’s Church of Dover was established in 1909, and their church was completed the following year. It’s a handsome brick structure that has undergone seamless changes since then. In 1916, the round “The Good Shepherd” stained-glass window, with Jesus walking among his wooly flock of sheep, was added to the front of the building. The Memorial Tower, with an open arcade and large cross at the top, was constructed in 1924, followed by the removal of neighboring houses to provide a church lawn. In the 1930s and 1940s, the church was the home of Dover’s only bowling alley and one of its two movie theaters. In 1954, the seating plan was changed, accommodating a new center aisle. And in 1988, one of the two largest pipe organs on the Eastern Shore of the United States was installed. My favorite part is the Stone Memorial Tablet above the main entrance in the tower. Rather than a religious theme, the tablet depicts three soldiers, etched with “They Gave Us Peace,” dedicated to those who fought in World War I.
#5 Old Presbyterian Church of Dover (Dover)
For a church that hasn’t been a church in nearly a century, the Old Presbyterian Church of Dover looks to be in pretty good shape. Opened in 1791 (and replacing a log church, circa 1708), the church was still new when Delaware’s state constitution was ratified here the following year. The congregation worshipped here until 1924, and they sold the building to the state in the late 1940s. Since then, it served at various times as the Delaware State Museum and the Delaware Archaeological Museum. The brick structure with white doors, an ocular window, and a cupola still housing a bell remains closed, but the adjacent cemetery is open for a good stroll. You’ll find gravesites for those who fought in every war from the American Revolution to the Vietnam War, including Col. John Haslet, commander of the Delaware Regiment, killed during the Battle of Princeton in 1777. You’ll also find the grave of Dr. Joshua Clayton (1744–98), the last president of Delaware—the state’s official title of its executive leader before “governor” became the norm.
- First and Central Presbyterian Church (Wilmington, 1929)
- Old First Baptist Church (Dover, 1893)
- Christ Episcopal Church (Dover, 1734)
- St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (Lewes, 1858)
- All Saints Episcopal Church (Rehoboth Beach, 1893)
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