On Old Cape Cod

by Bob Bach

In 1957, singer Patti Page recorded a song that rose to the top of the popular charts containing these lyrics:

If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air
Quaint little villages here and there
Winding roads that seem to beckon you
Miles of green beneath a sky of blue
You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod

The song describes the sparkling, 70-mile long peninsula that curves into the Atlantic and is home to miles of spectacular beaches and about 15 historic villages and towns. The Cape was named by an English adventurer, Bartholomew Gosnold who sailed from England in 1602 in search of trading opportunities along the American coast. He anchored off what is now Provincetown. Because of the abundance of cod his crew managed to catch, they called the place Cape Cod. Settlement of the Cape, however, began with the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. The Mayflower was far north of the intended destination when they spotted land. Weary from battling the stormy Atlantic, the ship with its 102 passengers put in at Provincetown Harbor. Captain Myles Standish and a small party set off to seek a suitable site for a settlement rather than head down the coast to Virginia. They chose Plymouth, located on the western side of Cape Cod Bay, as the place to establish a colony and they spread out from there. The Wampanoag people, who had inhabited the Cape for hundreds of years, taught the settlers how to live off the land. By the 19th century tourists began to come. Presidents Grover Cleveland and John F. Kennedy each had a Summer White House on the Cape. Cape Cod attracts millions of visitors each year and is home to artists, writers, musicians, fishermen, farmers, and others who are drawn there by the lure of the sea. It is also the home of veteran Covenant pastor, Richard Swanson, and his lovely wife, Helen.

The story of Dick and Helen Swanson begins several hundred miles to the west in Ridgway, Pennsylvania. Dick was the youngest of the five children of Swedish immigrants, Lena and Victor Swanson. In 1924, when Dick was four years old, his father, a bricklayer contractor, was killed while inspecting an elevator shaft at a job site.

Life took a dramatic turn for the Swanson family. Lena now had five children to raise by herself. Dick’s oldest brother quit school at 16 to work to help support the family. Dick recalls:

My mother was a godly woman of strength and compassion. Life was difficult for her, but she raised us with love for each other and love for the Lord. She wasn’t one to be in the forefront, but many came to her for counsel and advice because of the way she faced difficulties with grace.

Life for the Swanson family centered around the Ridgway Covenant Church where Dick committed his life to the Lord and began to feel the urge to become a minister. “I was deeply influenced by the ministry of our pastor, Stanley Benson, and his wife, Edla. They modeled the pastor and his wife for me and made a tremendous impact upon my life.” When Dick was 14, he became friends with Helen Brumberg, 13. The casual relationship of these Hi-Leaguers steadily deepened, and when Helen was 16, they were a couple Helen’s father was the son of Swedish immigrants and her mother a descendant of the Mayflower party that landed at the Cape in 1620. She was the oldest of three children. As the relationship between Dick and Helen grew, their shared the goal of ministry was often the topic of their conversations.

After high school (1938), Dick worked in a local leather shoe sole factory to save money for North Park College and Seminary. Helen graduated the next year and, with the same goal, worked in the local telephone office. The Army drafted Dick in 1942, interrupting their plans. For part of his training he was sent to Fort Lawton in Seattle, Washington. Dick said:

I was homesick the first Sunday I visited First Covenant Church of Seattle, but as I trudged up Pike Street toward the church, I heard the singing of familiar hymns which was such a welcoming sound. And then when I heard the powerful message from Pastor Eric Gustafson, I knew I had found a home away from home.

When it appeared he would serve out his military time at Fort Lawton, he persuaded Helen to move to Seattle so that they could be together. On May 12, 1944, they were married at the First Covenant Church, surrounded by their new friends from church.

But shortly, Dick was shipped to the South Pacific. He served in New Guinea and was with the troops who followed Gen. Douglas MacArthur in his famous return to the Philippines in the fall of 1944. Meanwhile, Helen returned to Ridgway to work with her father who was managing a grocery store.

In the fall after Dick was discharged, they went to Chicago where Dick enrolled at North Park. With the help of the G.I. Bill, he began his college and seminary training. Helen went to work at the Covenant Office as a bookkeeper. “I first heard Dick Swanson preach in Eric Hawkinson’s homiletics class,” recalls seminary classmate Richard Christensen. “It was a straightforward scripture-based message delivered in a strong way, and I thought to myself that this is the way I want to preach.”

Dick and Helen left North Park for Dick’s internship at the Covenant Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also continued to study during his internship at University of Pittsburgh and Xenia Theological Seminary, which was affiliated with the Presbyterian church. Dick and Helen returned to North Park as parents of a young son, Jim, who is now Librarian at the University of Chicago. Dick graduated from seminary in 1952 and returned to serve his Pittsburgh congregation. He was ordained by T.W. Anderson, President of the Covenant, in his home church in Ridgway.

In 1954 Dick and Helen accepted a call to the Covenant church in Paxton, Illinois where their daughter, Jane, who is now the managing editor of The Covenant Companion, the monthly magazine of the Evangelical Covenant denomination, was born. Dick began a fifteen-year ministry to that congregation of the Boston Covenant Church in 1959.

Dick became Pastor of the Covenant Church in Galesburg, Illinois in 1974. After fifteen years in a big city environment, Galesburg was a big change for the Swansons but it was a time of wonderful ministry for them. Galesburg is the oldest active Covenant church. Last August Dick and Helen joined the congregation in celebrating its 135th anniversary.

After seven years of ministry in Galesburg, Dick became pastor at the Covenant Church in New Britain, Connecticut, one of the original churches of the East Coast Conference. When he retired in 1986, the Swansons moved to the home they had established on Cape Cod while at the Boston church. Shortly, however, Dick was called into what became a series of interim pastorates. The congregations include: Arvada Covenant in Colorado, Ravenswood Covenant in Chicago, Bridgewater Covenant in Massachusetts, Attleboro Covenant in Massachusetts, and St. Petersburg Covenant in Florida. A friend and former parishioner, Harold Smith describes Dick’s ministry this way:

The power of the Holy Spirit was always felt when Dick so ably presented God’s Word. I had the privilege of accompanying him on numerous visits to people in nursing homes, hospitals, and in their own homes. Dick presented such a caring, loving attitude to people, and was a wonderful listener and encourager.

Dick made these reflections on his calling as a Pastor:

I consider the ministry to be a call of high privilege, and one I didn’t deserve. I have been wonderfully blessed throughout the years, and the relationship a pastor has with people is one that lasts a lifetime. I am so thankful for the Lord’s leading in all the decisions that Helen and I have made together. Our call has been revealed to us as a distinctive urge and it has led us to many wonderful congregations. I have to say that whatever success I have been blessed with throughout the years of ministry, 90% of the credit belongs to Helen. Her personality, drive, and sheer perspiration have been great inspiration to me and she has been intimately attached to each congregation. I have been truly blessed to have her as my partner and wife. I am also indebted to the many church families that I have been associated with over the years, and the godly men that influenced my life like T.W. Anderson, Eric Hawkinson, Nils Lund, Karl Olsson, and Donald Frisk. These were men who presented the gospel story in a strong, forceful, and compassionate way.

Dick and Helen are active members of the Cape Cod Covenant Church where they serve as the Lord leads. The next time you visit Cape Cod, get on historic route 6A, “The Old King’s Highway.” This winding tree-shaded road—once an Indian trail—will take you past historic country inns, antique shops, and art galleries. You will always be close to the shores of Cape Cod Bay. When you get to the little village of East Dennis, hang a right on Cedar Hill Road. At the top of the hill, you will see an American flag and a Swedish flag fluttering gently in the Cape Cod breeze. You will be at the Swansons, and they’ll have the light on for you.

“And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:3

Bob Bach, from Angels Camp, California, is Pietisten’s roving reporter

See all articles by Bob Bach