What’s In a Name? A Closer Look at the Seamen’s Church Institute

May 15, 2013

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) traces its history back to 1834, the year in which the Young Men’s Church Mission Society formed as an auxiliary to the Episcopal City Mission Society (now known as Episcopal Social Services, Inc.). In addition to focusing on seafarers and their families, the Young Men’s Church Mission Society focused broadly on under-privileged or impoverished communities and individuals in New York City. Along with funding work in rural Appalachia and upstate New York, the Society also dispatched missionaries to as far away as Africa. With resources spread far and wide, the Society suddenly faced a crisis of management. The surviving minutes from the meetings of the Board of Managers complain of “fruitless discussion” and “enervated action,” resulting in a Board resolution to redirect energies towards an “indigenous” group of destitute individuals worthy of the Society’s attention right there in New York City: seafarers.

On November 24, 1842, the Society’s Board passed a resolution to officially establish the Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society for Seamen in the City and Port of New York. The reorganized Society hired the Rev. Benjamin C. C. Parker as its first Seamen’s Chaplain on July 3, 1843, a position he would hold until his death in 1859. Parker held worship services above a grog shop until February 1844, when construction finished on the Floating Church of Our Saviour, towed and moored permanently at the foot of Pike Street on the East River in Lower Manhattan. Over the second half of the 19th century, the Society built a second “floating chapel” on the North (Hudson) River and expanded its presence through missionary outposts at Coenties Slip, West Street and 1 State Street.

By 1906, the Society had outgrown its scattered digs and began fundraising for a centralized headquarters to be constructed at 25 South Street. That same year, the Society’s leaders, including Superintendent the Rev. Archibald R. Mansfield decided that “The Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society for Seamen in the City and Port of New York” was far too clunky a moniker for the new, streamlined Society.

Mansfield writes in his memoir on how the name change came about:

Captain (afterwards Admiral) Alfred T. Mahan said, “Let us get at it this way. Who is it we are working for?” We all said, “Seamen.” “All right, put that down. Now under what auspices are we working? What is back of us?” We said, “The Church.” “All right, put that down—Church. Now what kind of work are we doing?” “Institutional work.” “Very well, put that down. Institute. Seamen’s Church Institute—there we have it, I think.”

In 1906, the Society submitted its new name to the New York legislature: the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York. The name would stick until 1978, when the changing landscape of the port caused SCI officials to reflect again on the nature and meaning of their name. With the launching of Malcolm McLean’s SS Ideal X in 1956, the introduction of containerization technology greatly increased the volume and speed with which cargo moved from port to port. To accommodate larger ships and new shipping technologies, New Jersey launched massive infrastructure construction projects in the marshlands of Newark and Elizabeth, attracting a flood of port traffic away from Lower Manhattan in the process.

In response to the shift of cargo traffic from Lower Manhattan to New Jersey, SCI opened the one-story Port Newark Station on Export Street in 1961, expanding the facility in 1965. By 1978, it was obvious that SCI was no longer serving just the Port of New York. To reflect this change, the Institute officially changed its name to the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

SCI has had several official names over the years, reflecting the changing shape of maritime commerce and the landscape of the Port of New York and New Jersey. No matter what its specific name has been, the Institute has maintained an unbroken commitment to mariners’ welfare.