Astrid Perry’s wooden shoes sit on top of the trunk she used for her journey to America.
By Joy Segal
Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church is steeped in the immigrant experience. Indeed, we are proud to point out that not only is the Church building the oldest brick building in Philadelphia, the folks that surround us in the graveyard are some of the earliest settlers to come to the New World. Their stories are the history of Philadelphia and of early immigrants to these shores.
But the immigrant experience at Old Swedes’ did not end with its early history. During later waves of immigration to these shores, the church welcomed many and eased entry for those wishing to become citizens of this country.
One such “modern” immigrant was Astrid Perry. Hers is a story of hope, bravery, determination, love and devotion. We are proud she rests with us still, in our graveyard, along with the many who came before her – people who found welcome and encouragement at Old Swedes’ and added their own contributions to this beloved place.
Astrid was born in Nybergtorp Vedevag, Sweden in 1907. Her mother emigrated to the United States while Astrid was still a child, leaving her daughter with grandparents in Lindesberg, Sweden. In August of 1922 Astrid traveled alone, at the age of 14, to the United States, on the vessel Stockholm, to join her mother. She became a U.S. citizen on Jan. 11, 1934.
As Astrid grew up in her new country, she was determined to become a model citizen and independent woman. People say she was intelligent and hard working, with an outgoing, friendly, and sometimes overwhelming personality. Those alive today who knew Astrid share fond memories of this amazing woman: kindly, loving, a welcoming presence, yet prim and proper; she had an air of command about her; people noticed Astrid when she walked into a room. And no wonder. She was 6’1” tall and carried herself with assurance. Yet, big and strong as she was, she could do delicate, dainty work such as needlepoint and loved to make fine pastries.
A woman of many talents
Astrid was trained by Elizabeth Arden, a famous makeup artist and businesswoman whose line of cosmetics are still in-demand today. On her Declaration of Intention For Citizenship, which she filed in 1927, she listed her occupation as “Massage and Beauticulture.” So, at age 20 she was already on the road to what would become a very successful career. After working many years at Elizabeth Arden’s Salon in Philadelphia’s famous Strawbridge and Clothiers, she later became a successful, self-employed masseuse. Among the famous people her obituary listed as clients were: Liberace, Gypsy Rose Lee, the King of Sweden, and Al Capone.
Never one to sit quietly, Astrid constantly added to her many activities, interests, and accomplishments. A person who knew her well recalled that Astrid was one of several women who rode the diving horse at Steel Pier in Atlantic City. “She was also part of the water-skiing ladies. Being (over) 6’ tall, she was part of the base in the pyramid while skiing.”
Old Swedes’ was blessed when Astrid became a member of the church. Her accomplishments and contributions to Old Swedes’ were myriad and invaluable. She was devoted to the church, and her creativity and devotion added new ideas and new events to the church’s many neighborhood outreach projects. In 1975 she, along with Sandra Myers of South Philadelphia, made history as the first two women to be elected and to serve on the church’s Vestry in the over 300-year history of the church. Astrid continued to serve on the vestry for many years.
Creator of Old Swedes’ Lucia Fest
Astrid was the instigator and creator of Old Swedes’s famous Lucia Fest, which began in 1938. She also was the first Lucia, and continued to take that role each December for many years. As the Lucia Fest became more and more successful, she stepped down, encouraging young girls and boys to take it on, learn to sing the Swedish songs, and present the story to new and old audiences alike each year. Astrid possessed a wonderful voice and was a faithful member of the choir for many years as well. Plus, she cooked and baked and organized many dinners, banquets, receptions, and events at Old Swedes’.
Astrid married Frederick V. Perry in 1944. They divorced ten years later, but Astrid stayed close to her stepdaughter and her stepdaughter’s children, calling them her grandchildren. With a mother she was not close to, and one cousin on the West Coast she rarely saw, Astrid’s stepdaughter, grandchildren and the Old Swedes’ community became her family.
No one really knows why Astrid’s mother decided to emigrate to the United States or much about any members of her family she left behind in Sweden. It’s fascinating to wonder what life was like for this 14-year-old girl landing in Philadelphia. Basically on her own here, she made what she could of her life. Apparently, Astrid stepped into this new world with determination to make an independent life for herself. Strong-willed, broadminded and a free-thinker, Astrid was a person everyone took notice of when she walked into a room. She loved to entertain, enjoyed welcoming folks into her home, and always took care of herself, physically and mentally.
Immigrants to the U.S. have contributed greatly to our country’s success. We are amazed every day as we uncover, right here at Old Swedes’, immigrants’ stories that clearly demonstrate this fact. Astrid Perry, perhaps a late arrival as our history goes, is honored here as one who added much – not only to our understanding of the immigrant experience but who also continues to encourage those who face massive change in their lives. She is a model of bravery, devotion, and determination. And her story reminds us of the value of a community that includes all … encourages every age …and devotes itself to faith, kindness, and love of God and neighbor.
Thanks to Bob Jenkins, Carol Jenkins, and Jeanette Woehr for sharing their memories, telling me some stories, and reminiscing with fondness about Astrid. She came alive for me through these memories.
Astrid P. Perry
November 25, 1907
January 30, 1995
The First Lucia
Type of Marker: Headstone
Historic Integrity: Intact
Structural Integrity: Excellent
Material Integrity: Excellent
Legible Inscription: Excellent
Inventory Number: 514
Plot Number: 883
Cemetery Section: 10
Marker Height/Length (in): 33
Marker Width (in): 24
Marker Thickness/Depth (in): 3