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RESTORATION

Seamen's Church Institute

by Jessica Mazzola

The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey operates from South Street Seaport and continuously fulfills the same mission it set forth upon its foundation in 1834, to advance “…the personal, professional, and spiritual well-being of merchant mariners worldwide” and promote “…safety, dignity, and improved working and living conditions for all mariners.”5 It carries out this mission from its headquarters, located at 241 Water Street in the South Street Seaport District of New York, and its locations in Port Newark, New Jersey, Paducah, Kentucky, and Houston, Texas.

Early History of the Seamen’s Church Institute

While the origination of the Seamen’s Church Institute goes back to the Floating Chapel that was established by the Episcopal Church at South Street in 1834, during the port’s heyday, its recent history can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century when the decline of the Seaport area took sailors as its prey. Isolated and often invisible, seafarers were easy targets for abuse by both greedy captains and on shore swindlers.3 In 1913, when the Institute constructed its building at 25 South Street, seamen were facing ills that have plagued the profession throughout its entire history, including being attacked and robbed on the streets, as well as taken advantage of by the plethora of prostitutes, alcohol, and shanghaiing sailors.6 In their persistent effort to improve and protect the lives of seafarers, a hotel was opened at the Seaport that had many amenities for the sailors. It included “…a lunch counter, medical clinic, laundry facility, lost and found department, reading room (stocked with foreign newspapers and magazines), writing room and in the basement a storage area for baggage while at sea,” as well as banking facilities, the beginnings of a Navigation and Marine Engineering School, a post office, and, of course, a chapel. Later on, after management of the growing the post office and medical divisions became too much to handle, they were reallocated, and an eye clinic, shoe repair, and barber shop were added to the complex.6 In 1912, the Seamen’s Church Institute reworked existing plans for an addition to the roof of their building when the Titanic crashed. Construction of a Titanic Memorial, which consisted of a lighthouse with a time ball that dropped every day in remembrance of the disaster, began one day after the crash.11 The memorial and functioning clock, which could be seen by ships entering the harbor, served as a reminder of the tragedy along with the occasional memorial services held in the chapel, which continued into the 1960’s. During the Depression Era, the shipping industry in the United States was hit particularly hard and experienced one of its first true recessions. The Seamen’s Church Institute took on the job of caring for the increasing number of unemployed sailors. The financial state of the Seamen’s Church Institute suffered from a lack of grant funding during the economic depression. Even government relief money was not sufficient because the Institute was housing a growing number of seamen using continuously depleting its funds.13 Seafarers, who during this period were subject to the usual dangers against which the Institute generally fought, as well as the constant threats of career and financial uncertainty, became prime candidates for subscribing to the communist mentality that was becoming prevalent at the time. As the number of discontented sailors grew, so did their tendency to turn to new ideas about communism. Because the Institute housed these seafarers and their activities that pushed the acceptance of communist ideologies in America, it developed a reputation that tied it to this school of thought. This was the only time in the institution’s history that it has had a bad public image in regards to its motives and practices. The shipping industry was finally revitalized during World War II (1939-1945). The Institute resumed the role that it had taken on during World War I (1914-1918) of housing and entertaining wartime sailors while they were in the Port of New York.6 After 1942, the Institute was “…the official receiving station for the first American Maritime ‘pool.’ After men completed their maritime service training, they were sent to the Institute to await calls to join their ships.”6 After the war, seafarers had less need for these services, as the industry again slumped. Of the seafarers that remained, many felt that the new South Street Seaport that was emerging was not as accommodating to them as it once had been. The business environment set up in the financial district around the declining port detracted from the once prosperous sea community and replaced it with an almost lifeless and neighborhood-lacking sector of Manhattan. Seafarers began to feel unwelcome in the traditionally maritime, but now corporate, area. The era of the Seamen’s Church Institute as a site of direct interaction with sailors at South Street Seaport was dealt its final blow with the development of containerization and the shift toward larger ports outside of New York, namely to those in New Jersey. The Institute began cooperating with the Port in Newark, including leasing land there to create recreational fields and buildings for the seafarers that no longer docked in New York. As seafarers were moving out and office buildings were moving in, the Institute had to move, for the first time in its history, outside of South Street Seaport. It relocated to a building at 15 State Street in Battery Park in December 1968. Containerization further changed the lives of seafarers because they moved cargo so much more quickly that they docked for a minute amount of time, making hotels for mariners obsolete signs from an era gone by. In a move that brought much needed funding to the Seamen’s Church Institute, it sold its building in Battery Park for $29 million in 1985.6 When the Seamen’s Church moved from South Street, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse remained at the seaport, and graced the entrance to the South Street Seaport Museum at the corner of Fulton and Water Streets. Many have criticized the current state of the once revered memorial, with its more modern, decorated, non-functional time ball and lack of restoration, upkeep and prominence, as never regaining the esteem it held when a part of the Seamen’s Church Institute.11

The Institute Returns to South Street

After the move out of Battery Park, the Institute, although carrying on many of its activities at Port Newark, lacked a headquarters, and, more importantly, a public image. Its interim facility in a rented building on lower Broadway was nearly as invisible to the public as the seafarers who it was trying to protect. In order to create a symbol of their establishment, the Institute purchased land at 241 Water Street, between Beekman Street and Peck Slip, for $3.2 million in 1988. Seamen’s Church hired architects James Stuart Polshek & Partners to design a building that was both evocative of the Institute’s past and indicative of its grandiose message. Although then director Reverend James R. Whittemore considered moving the entire operation to Port Newark, he felt very fortunate to be able to reconnect with the Seaport in a move that would be one of the first developments on the northern edge of this historic district.7 The $12 million construction of the building was completed in 1991. It was described in the New York Times as being “…a nautically tinged building that is a mix of an 1800 façade, the old Schermerhorn Ship Chandlery, at No. 243, and a new structure that adjoins it. The lintels and partitioned brickwork of the landmarked old complement the smooth-faced, large-windowed understatedly modern exterior of the new.”8 It lacked the hotel quarters typical of previous New York locations, due to the lack of seamen at South Street Seaport. It was, however, equipped with a Center for Seamen’s Rights, a small chapel, and a Maritime Training Center, that has since been moved. Also tucked away in the building is an archive of maritime history: a vast collection of nautical documentation, photography and printing, modeling, and other forms of maritime artifacts that employees of the institution hope will one day be transformed into a museum open to the public.3

What it is like Today

The Seamen’s Church Institute is still committed to improving the lives of mariners, and they do this through education, the distribution of legal aid, providing human contact and support to the often isolated sailor, and fostering spirituality, still the basis and cornerstone of the entire operation. Although the Institute was founded in the Episcopal tradition, it is now “…non-sectarian, with religion not forced on people but made attractively available at all times” and catering to all denominations.13 The building on Water Street in the Historic South Street Seaport District now acts as the Institute’s international headquarters. It still holds a collection of artifacts that are available for public viewing anytime the facility is open, and occasionally puts on exhibitions that attract more public attention. The Institute’s location, on the less developed northern edge of the district, is slightly outside the main tourist attractions of the mall on Pier 17, museum, and the shops and restaurants along Schermerhorn Row, making it less visible to visitors. However, it still holds services in the chapel, and coordinates all of the programs to benefit seafarers, the most visible of which, the Christmas at Sea or Christmas on the River Program, still operates from within its walls. The education center has been moved to larger facilities in Houston, Texas and Paducah, Kentucky.

The Christmas at Sea Program

The Seamen’s Church Institute began its Christmas at Sea Program during the Spanish American War, and continues to be what the Institute considers one of its most meaningful activities.1 The operation prepares for the December holiday season all year long, during which about 4,000 volunteer knitters construct over 16,000 hand knit gifts to be distributed to seafarers working between November 1st and January 1st. In the building in South Street Seaport volunteers knit the scarves, gloves, and other wintertime gifts and with other small trinkets prepare packages that are then delivered to both river and deep sea mariners around the world. Operators of the program are impressed not only by its ability to touch the lives of seafarers, and connect them to the Institute that cares for them, but also the positive impact that it has on the lives of volunteers.3

The Center for Seafarer’s Rights

Operating from the headquarters in South Street Seaport, the Center for Seafarer’s Rights is a legal advocacy group that offers free legal advice to and promotes the fair treatment of mariners. This branch of the Seamen’s Church Institute, based in the building on Water Street, is fighting against many issues that still face, especially the increasing number of international, seafarers. Problems that the Center tries to solve include captains’ abandonment of ships, denial of wages, inadequate medical care, denial of shore leave, and complications due to the constant passing over different legal jurisdictions. While it is true that the government provides seafarers the most legalized protection of any profession because of the isolated and transitory nature of their profession, they are also the group most widely susceptible to exploitation and denial of rights. They are also a group that, while at sea, generally lacks the typical support systems of both family and law enforcement.4 Because a sort of surrogate community is formed by seafarers while at sea, the Center for Seafarer’s Rights works to ensure that seamen living this way are afforded the same rights as the citizens of on-land communities. In order to inform the public and combat the plight of seamen, the organization participates in many national and international conferences and maintains a program of teaching. They train chaplains in legal matters, and interns from local universities in order to spread the knowledge of the necessity of advocacy for seafarers. The Center also takes part in the meetings of The United Nations Law of the Sea, The International Maritime Organization in London, The International Labor Organization in Geneva, and in political arenas in the United States that lobby for protective seafaring legislation.4 The Center continues to inform both the public, and the seafarers, of their guaranteed rights that they are often denied.

Seafaring Education

The Training and education departments of The Seamen’s Church Institute began during World War I, and have evolved with the shipping industry into a highly sophisticated simulation program that moved from South Street Seaport to the larger, inland branches of the Institute located in Paducah, Kentucky and Houston, Texas, in the early 21st Century. These centers provide training in pilothouse management and on board emergency procedure, as well as a thorough education of their legal rights and how to cope with the possible denial of these rights.12 Along with helping seafarers, the profits from this operation support the chaplains and fund many of the other efforts undertaken by the Institute.2

The International Seafarer’s Center at Port Newark

The International Seafarer’s Center branch of the Institute, located in Port Newark, assumed the role of the old Seamen’s Church in New York City. The move to New Jersey was necessary for the chaplains to be in direct contact with incoming seafarers. It also extended the work of the Institute to not only benefit mariners, but truck drivers and port workers. Most of the Institute’s chaplains, who are often considered the heart and soul of the organization with the most direct connection with the sailors, have been based here since it opened in 1960.9 Continuing practices began at South Street, they are trained to provide “…hospitality and pastoral counseling…”5 to seamen who need it. Chaplains go aboard vessels to tend to the crewmen’s needs. They are also trained to recognize abuse, mistreatment, and infringement upon seafarer’s legal rights, so they can report them to the Center for Seafarer’s Rights based in South Street Seaport. In emergency situations in which mariners are hurt or in need of medical care, the Institute has an agreement with the medical center at Newark Airport in which sailors can be taken there to receive medical help.9 The Institute’s tradition of providing seamen with medical assistance goes back to the early 1900’s. Soon after the installation of radios on all ships, the Seamen’s Church Institute installed a radio tower on the roof of its building on South Street. The station, KDKF, received emergency medical calls from ships at sea. It sent the symptom reports to the Marine Hospital on Staten Island, and their treatment instructions back to the ships at sea. Ever since then, the Institute has worked to ensure that first aid seminars and emergency situation education be available to seafarers.13 In addition to this service, the center at Newark provides many others to the incoming sailors, who may stay in port anywhere from eight hours to several days. They offer sporting and recreational fields and courts to the seafarers, as well as other more relaxing activities, like televisions, video games and board games. The facility is also equipped with ways in which mariners can conduct business, like money wiring, telephone and internet usage, and mailing, as well as a conference room and restaurant. Bringing to Newark the cornerstone of the Institute at South Street, the International Seafarer’s Center also has a Mariner’s Chapel that is always open and offers daily services.5 The mariners take advantage of these services, as seen by the estimation made in the 1990’s that 155,000 people utilize the Center every year.9

The Institute’s Internationality

This Seamen’s Church Institute is just one of many similar agencies around the world, many of which it established.2 In addition to overseas help given to foreign mariners, the Institute also focuses a great deal of attention on the non-American seafarers who work in American ports. At Port Newark, one of the many jobs of the chaplains is to assist non-English speakers in necessary tasks while in the port, such as using the phone or internet, or sending traveler’s checks back home.9 The Institute has implemented a strict non-discrimination policy by which all seafarers, regardless of nationality, benefit from all of the services they have to offer. Since about three-quarters of the mariners are sailing in from developing countries, the focus has tended to shift from protecting seafarers against wrongs afforded to them once docked to protecting the often economically challenged seamen from being taken advantage of onboard ship.8 The Seamen’s Church Institute, in spite of the recent shift from aiding a majority of Americans to protecting seafarers of all nationalities, has continued to stay true to its mission to better the lives of the seamen.

Endnotes:

5 The International Seafarers’ Center Pamphlet. Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

3 Interview with Jeanette DeVita, Assistant to the Executive Director. Christmas at Sea Program. The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

6 McLaren, Robert T. The Seamen’s Church Institute.Challenege Publications, Inc, March 2007. Proquest Information and Learning Company.

6

11 Gray, Christopher. “Remembering Victims of a 1912 Disaster.” The New York Times.11 September 2005.

13 Uhl, Robert. “They Got It All, and They Ain’t Too Holy: The 150 Year Saga of the Seamen’s Church Institute.” Seaport: The Magazine of the South Street Seaport Museum. Volume XVIII, Number 2. Fall 1984.

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6 McLaren, Robert T. The Seamen’s Church Institute.Challenege Publications, Inc, March 2007. Proquest Information and Learning Company.

6 McLaren, Robert T. The Seamen’s Church Institute.Challenege Publications, Inc, March 2007. Proquest Information and Learning Company.

11 Gray, Christopher. “Remembering Victims of a 1912 Disaster.” The New York Times.11 September 2005.

7Dunlap, David W. “Seamen Institute Finds a Haven on Water Street.” The New York Times. 31 October 1988.

8 Shepard, Richard F. “South Street Journal; Ahoy, Mates, the Institute’s back at the Seaport.” The New York Times. 6 May 1991.

3 Interview with Jeanette DeVita, Assistant to the Executive Director. Christmas at Sea Program. The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

13 Uhl, Robert. “They Got It All, and They Ain’t Too Holy: The 150 Year Saga of the Seamen’s Church Institute.” Seaport: The Magazine of the South Street Seaport Museum. Volume XVIII, Number 2. Fall 1984.

1 The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, Promotional DVD. Sponsored by CondeNast Traveler.

3 Interview with Jeanette DeVita, Assistant to the Executive Director. Christmas at Sea Program. The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

4 Center for Seafarer’s Rights Pamphlet. The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

4 Center for Seafarer’s Rights Pamphlet. The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

12 The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey Pamphlet.

2 Interview with Tami Kurtz, Chief Administrative Officer, The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

9 Toolen, Tom. “New Jersey Q &A: The Rev. Jean Smith; Helping the Troubled at the Waterfront.” The New York Times. 15 August 1993.

5 The International Seafarers’ Center Pamphlet. Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

9 Toolen, Tom. “New Jersey Q &A: The Rev. Jean Smith; Helping the Troubled at the Waterfront.” The New York Times. 15 August 1993.

13 Uhl, Robert. “They Got It All, and They Ain’t Too Holy: The 150 Year Saga of the Seamen’s Church Institute.” Seaport: The Magazine of the South Street Seaport Museum. Volume XVIII, Number 2. Fall 1984.

5 The International Seafarers’ Center Pamphlet. Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

9 Toolen, Tom. “New Jersey Q &A: The Rev. Jean Smith; Helping the Troubled at the Waterfront.” The New York Times. 15 August 1993.

2 Interview with Tami Kurtz, Chief Administrative Officer, The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

9 Toolen, Tom. “New Jersey Q &A: The Rev. Jean Smith; Helping the Troubled at the Waterfront.” The New York Times. 15 August 1993.

8 Shepard, Richard F. “South Street Journal; Ahoy, Mates, the Institute’s back at the Seaport.” The New York Times. 6 May 1991.

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