10. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, Philadelphia (1700)
As the story goes, the Swedish settlers who built this church were bitterly divided over where to locate it, so they wrote the names of two possible sites on pieces of paper and drew the winner. Remarkably, this Episcopal church has had only seven rectors since 1868, which is a virtual revolving door compared to the church’s earlier history; only two rectors served at the church in the roughly 80 years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Affiliated with the nearby Independence National Historical Park, Old Swedes’ is a popular stop for tourists taking in Philadelphia’s colonial history.
9. Holy Trinity Church, Wilmington, Delaware (1699)
There were no home improvement stores in the Colonial era, and building materials could be scarce, so Holy Trinity’s builders improvised; they used bricks that had served as ballast on the ship that brought early Swedish settlers to the area they called New Sweden. Historians regard the Holy Trinity, also known as Old Swedes Church, as America’s oldest house of worship still standing as originally built. About the only thing that has changed is the denomination; founded in the Lutheran faith, Holy Trinity has been part of the Episcopal church for more than 200 years. The Old Swedes Foundation offers guided tours of the church, the cemetery and grounds — which actually predate the church by some 60 years — and the Hendrickson House Museum. Genealogy buffs from around the world have visited the library at this historic site to research baptism, marriage and burial records recorded over more than 300 years.
8. Flushing Quaker Meetinghouse, New York City (1694)
This historic structure in the Flushing section of Queens, New York, still sees heavy use — it’s open for both worship and tours — but it needs some work. An ongoing restoration campaign is raising money to replace the wood-shingle roof and make other repairs, and install modern fire alarm and sprinkler systems. Don’t look for any dramatic changes to the simple interior adornments that look much the same as they did when George Washington first visited in 1789. It wasn’t the building’s only brush with U.S. history; Flushing Quakers were extremely active in helping slaves escape through the underground railroad.
7. Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. (1685)
This old church appeared in Washington Irving’s classic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. You won’t find any headless horsemen around today, although you might run across some tourists taking self-guided tours of the church grounds. The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns still holds summer services at the brick structure, which was one of the first historic sites named a National Historic Landmark, in 1961.
6. King’s Chapel, Boston (1686)
Controversy marked the origins of this church. King James II wanted to establish an Anglican parish in Boston to help spread the Church of England; colonists, many of whom had fled England to escape the reach of that church, were not about to sell a parcel of land for an English church. So the king ordered part of a local cemetery seized to build his church. There is some question about whether to include King’s Chapel on the list, as the current structure was not completed until 1754. However, this impressive-looking stone edifice was constructed around the frame of a wooden church built in the 1680s; when workers finished the stonework, they demolished the wooden church within. Today, the church is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
5. Old Indian Meetinghouse, Mashpee, Massachusetts (1684)
In the 17th and 18th centuries, American settlers built dozens of “Indian Meetinghouses” in New England in an effort to convert the “heathen” Indians to Christianity. The Old Indian Meetinghouse, built in 1684, is one of the few remaining meetinghouses. Located on Cape Cod, the structure closed a few years ago to undergo a $1 million renovation, reopening in 2009 to host services for the Wampanoag Tribe members in Mashpee. Although some new touches were added during the renovation, such as mahogany woodwork and steel reinforcement, much of the interior of the structure, from the pews to the beams, are from the original structure. At the grand reopening, tribal chief Vernon “Silent Drum” Lopez described the white-frame building as the “nucleus of our tribe … This building here represents the whole beginning and ending of our tribe.”
4. Third Haven Meetinghouse, Easton, Maryland (1684)
The Religious Society of Friends movement began in England in the mid 17th century, but it didn’t take long before many members — better known as Quakers — set off for America to escape religious persecution. Most Quakers headed for the New England region, but a sizeable number ended up along the Maryland and Virginia coast. In 1684, a group of Quakers built a white-frame meetinghouse in the present-day town of Easton. The oldest documented structure Maryland, the Third Haven Meetinghouse still hosts Quaker services, although in the winter months the congregation uses a “new” brick building built in 1880. Both buildings are popular tourist attractions in the area.
3. Old Ship Church, Hingham, Massachusetts (1681)
Affectionately known as the “Old Ship,” this church is so famous it once starred in its own documentary on the History Channel. Founded by Puritans, the church today is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the building itself is the oldest church in the U.S. to have been in continuous religious use. As for the name Old Ship, even the Friends of Old Ship can only speculate the name may have been inspired by the roof’s resemblance to a ship’s hull.
2. St. Luke’s Church, Smithfield, Virginia (1632)
There is some question regarding the actual date of this church’s construction, whether in 1632 or 1682. Either way, this Episcopal church would be at worse the third oldest structure on this list. Known until 1820 as Old Brick Church, St. Luke’s is generally regarded as the oldest church of English origin in the United States. The oldest surviving example of Gothic architecture in America, the structure is protected by several historic designations (National Historic Site, National Historic Landmark, etc.). St. Luke’s also boasts an avid group of backers and preservationists — church supporters once went on a 1950s TV show, Strike it Rich, to raise money to help preserve the structure. Whereas the other churches on this list are owned by congregations or religious groups, a non-profit group known as St. Luke’s Restoration controls St. Luke’s helping maintain this almost 400-year-old church.
1. San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610)
Santa Fe has been so successful in preserving its history and early architecture, many tourists in Santa Fe have driven or even walked right by this building without realizing it is the oldest church in the continental United States still hosting services (one such church in Puerto Rico is older). There is a caveat to this “oldest church” moniker, however; the original structure was mostly destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt in 1710. As you might expect of a church this old, there are some interesting quirks, most notably the huge church bell allegedly cast in Spain in 1356.
(Editor’s note: Sources for this story included the individual church websites and several history, genealogy and religious websites.)