by Johnathan Thayer, Associate Archivist
The recently launched SCI CHAPLAINSBLOG showcases the daily work of SCI’s port chaplains, creating a new forum in which they can reach out to seafarers in the digital era. In many ways, this latest innovation is part of a long tradition that SCI started on the docks of Lower Manhattan in 1843. That year, the Board resolved to purchase the hull of the ferryboat Manhattan for $400 and convert it into a chapel. SCI, then called the Young Men’s Church Missionary Society, secured wharfage at the foot of Pike Street and opened the first Floating Chapel of Our Saviour. Now chaplains could hold services in the heart of “Sailortown” itself, setting up shop amidst the brothels and saloons with which the church would be competing.
On July 3, 1843, the Institute appointed the Rev. Benjamin C. C. Parker as its first Seamen’s Chaplain. Parker preached in a corner room above a grog shop on the corner of Pike and South Streets for a year until the Floating Chapel was ready for service. Despite the modest space, Parker recruited hundreds of seafarers for Sunday services, handing out free prayer books and encouraging the men to sign temperance pledges, temperance being the major issue of the day. In his journals, Parker claims that there were 13,000 sailors in the Port who had signed the pledge as of the beginning of 1844. He writes:
“If these are the results of the mission & the efforts of the gentlemen of the Society in the present place of meeting, merely an unattractive upper room over a grog shop, what may be hoped for when the Society has a place of public worship, in every respect pleasing, attractive and congenial to the sailor.” October 29, 1843
The opening of the Floating Chapel attracted enthusiasm from both seafarers and the public alike. When SCI completed the renovations, the Chapel was towed to the foot of Battery Park where the public was invited on board to check out the City’s latest—and undoubtedly most unusual—house of worship. Interest was so high that when Parker began holding services at Pike Street, three to four employees were required in order to prevent non-seafarers from filling up the pews on Sundays. The Chapel was built for the express purpose of granting seafarers their own space to worship, and the Institute was not shy about acting on this principle. By April 1844, Parker claims that the Institute barred from attending 300 to 400 non-seafarers from services every Sunday.
Being a docked vessel exposed the Floating Chapel to the elements more than landlocked structures. On two occasions, other vessels in the harbor struck the Chapel: a brig in 1849 and the sloop Advocate in 1853. Icy snowstorms combined with the river’s chop caused damage to the Chapel on three separate occasions between 1845-1853. In 1853, the Chapel sank under the weight of snow that had built up on the roof. Parker describes one particular storm that threatened (unsuccessfully) to interrupt his sermon in 1848:
“Soon after I commenced the Sermon a violent shower & hail storm burst upon the chapel & the noise was so loud as the rain & hail poured on the roof that my voice after the 4th page could not be heard 3 slips off. I however felt compelled to proceed, as stopping would have been more embarrassing both to the congregation and myself. With no little pain & uneasiness I went through the sermon but was compelled to wait in silence at its conclusion 5 or 10 minutes for the shower to pass over as it would have been quite ludicrous for the congregation to have tried to raise their voices above the storm which they must have done to have been heard, & it would have been painful to a devout worshipper in the extreme.” May 7 1848
When a cholera outbreak terrorized New York City in 1849, Parker read a letter to his congregation from the City’s Sanitation Committee requesting the City’s Clergy to “allay the fears of the community as a preventative of the prevailing cholera.” The day before the letter arrived, the news came in that 88 new cases and 26 deaths had been reported. Parker led his congregation in a federally mandated Fast Day on August 4, 1849. 5,000 city residents died as a result of the outbreak.
Despite such hardships, Parker’s journals are filled with stories of redeemed sailors and an acute sense of appreciation for the majesty and industry of New York Harbor. Parker writes with unabashed wonder, recalling the steamer Great Britain passing a few hundred yards outside the Chapel’s vestry window:
“A more sublime magnificent and imposing sight I never witnessed. Her motion had become slow on reaching so near the dock... Her long waists 322 feet and beautiful outline & graceful proportions with 6 masts and flags streaming at the head of each in the breeze & onward progress made the imagination… but a trifling deception in comparison to the reality so filling the mind with astonishment and admiration.” August 10, 1845
Here’s to more stories from our modern chaplains of the challenges, successes and wonder of maritime ministry. Follow the SCI CHAPLAINSBLOG here.