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]

17 Responses to “Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls”

  1. Zoé Says:

    This is *truly* amazing. How do you unearth this stuff! I never heard of these.

    The church in the photo almost looks like a traditional Norwegian stave church. (Is that the right word?).

    I read about one society/hotel in London for Muslim seamen & elderly that is still operating in some capacity.

    And that org that still wants you to knit socks & scarves & hats & give gifts & other necessities to merchant seamen. I’ve forgotten the name. Is that the same org you have written of here?

  2. kbsalazar Says:

    The Seaman’s Church has always been heavily involved in distributing small comforts to mariners, including knitted scarves, hats, socks, and other garments. The charity even developed an entire style of scarf (flat ends, ribbed narrow center) for optimal warmth under peacoats and heavy deck gear. You can still find lots of patterns on line for Seamans’ Scarves; and the original volunteer knitter project is still up and running: http://seamenschurch.org/christmas-at-sea

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I was amazed to find out that the Seamen’s Church still exists—but no longer in New York, alas

    • Zoé Says:

      Where is it now?

      • Lady Feliz Says:

        Port Newark, which makes sense since just about all of NY/NJ port traffic comes through that side of the harbor.

      • Zoé Says:

        Thank you. I’ve read about them in knitting mags or Lion Brand Yarn online newsletter.

        Maybe more knitters will read this here ☕️☕️ 🎁💌⛴🛳🌊🐬🐬

  4. petey Says:

    fascinating, i’d never heard of these.

  5. alaspooryorick Says:

    its a wonderful easy bike ride to heavenly gardens of Snug Harbor via SI Ferry to Sailor’s Snug Harbor. (done from manhattan)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Easy on the ferry and a short bus ride too! I’ve done it and it’s a fascinating place.

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    In San Francisco, ships got abandoned during the Gold Rush, were never moved, and got turned into buildings. As the city added landfill, these weird ship-buildings were soon completely inland. They all got zapped over time by assorted natural and man-made forces. Atlas Obscura or Amusing Planet has some good stuff about them, including a very weird period artwork of a ship turned into a bar.

  7. Tom B Says:

    I had no idea this existed. But it shows this country was deep rooted in religion from it founding. That is a fact. Not so much anymore.

  8. Lady Feliz Says:

    The final location for the Floating Church of Our Savior was on the southeast corner of Richmond Terrace and Van Name Ave in Mariner’s Harbor, SI. When I was a kid, it was the location of a VFW hall built in the early 1960s (after the renamed All Saint’s Church had burned down and the congregation moved to Willowbrook). The VFW hall in turn has been demolished, and a row of townhomes has taken its place. Omnia Mutantur!

  9. Lars Says:

    Three of the Scandinavian countries still maintain active churches in New York City for the benefit of their sailors: The Danish Seamen’s Church at 102 Willow Street in Brooklyn, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church at 317 E. 52d street, Manhattan, and the Swedish Seamen’s Church at 5 E. 48th street, also Manhattan. They’re active churches with lively calendars.None of them are floating, however 😉

    • Zoé Says:

      That’s beautiful Lars. I wonder if any other nations have them in the City.

      And perhaps you can dig round the edges a little & pour some water in.

  10. Zoé Says:

    Aren’t these built on foundations like lighthouses vs floating like houseboats? (Just had another look at the photos).

  11. TennisNYC Says:

    Actually, the Seamen’s Church Institute continues to be headquartered in NYC at 50 Broadway. It’s chaplaincy and Christmas-at Sea programs are located in Port Newark at 118 Export Street, Newark, NJ

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