New York

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]
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