By Amy Grant
Southwark Historical Society
After over three hundred years of continuous use, the churchyard at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church was in desperate need of repair and restoration. Trees and shrubs had overrun the burial ground and needed pruning and thinning. Gravestones were badly broken, headpieces were missing or had sunken into the ground. Family tombs had been sealed for decades and were in danger of collapsing.
When The Rev. Joy Segal became the rector at Gloria Dei in 2006, she encouraged regular clean up events to help beautify and restore the churchyard. Parishioners worked many hours trimming healthy plants, removing tree stumps and overgrown bushes, and planting grass seed. Sadly, the beautiful Biddle family commemorative boxwoods — which were planted like a maze throughout the graveyard — were afflicted with root rot and could not be salvaged. But, as volunteers removed the brush, they made a fantastic discovery; several gravestones, long thought to be lost or stolen, were found underneath the overgrown shrubbery.
Gravestones dating back to 1721
Surprisingly, the gravestones were in excellent condition as the boxwoods had provided years of protection against the elements. Unearthing these well-preserved stones inspired the parish to start a churchyard restoration program in 2010. An annual fundraiser was created and support for the project was gained through private donations and proceeds from church events. Thanks to these efforts, over forty severely damaged stones have been repaired and restored and a number of others have been raised, leveled, and cleaned.
Every summer, master artisans from Materials Conservation Co., Inc. work with Gloria Dei to identify stones in need of repair. The restoration process involves assessing the condition of the stones, testing and analyzing the materials, and performing conservation treatments. Repairs are made, such as reattaching missing decorative pieces, often found buried nearby. When the process is complete, the stones are restored to their original vibrant colors.
Sons of Andreas Sandel, Church Minister from 1702-1719
Segal encourages members of the community to visit the churchyard during the restoration process. Those fortunate enough to observe the work in 2013 witnessed the opening of the Justus family tomb, which was in remarkably good condition despite being located adjacent to an underground stream. The following year, the Stille family tombstone, which dates back the early 1700s, was repaired and restored. Johan Stille (1646-1722), the family patriarch, had served as one of Gloria Dei’s earliest churchwardens.
Although the churchyard restoration project has made great strides so far, it will take many years to raise the funds needed to restore the entire graveyard. Burial records indicate that the church has over six thousand interments, though the locations of many of these graves have been lost over time. By locating and restoring gravestones, the church can update incomplete burial records that will benefit parishioners, historians, and genealogists. As the project commences work this summer, consider lending your support to help revitalize and rejuvenate this important historic neighborhood treasure.
Stille Family Tombstone, Restored 2014