The Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey was conceived in 1843 as a mission serving the needs of mariners in the ports along the Delaware River. The first such organization, the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, founded in 1834, today remains the largest, most comprehensive mariners’ service agency in North America.
Philadelphia’s Seamen’s Church Institute serves U.S. and international seafarers who visit the Ports of Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington along a fifty-mile stretch of the Delaware. Originally known as the Churchmen’s Missionary Association for Seamen of the Port of Philadelphia, the local organization has had many offices over the years, but its first “building” was actually a boat—the Floating Church of the Redeemer. This unusual and impressive vessel was usually moored at the foot of Dock Street and then the Spruce Street Dock for a few years in the early 1850s.
In November, 1847, three members of Philadelphia’s Christ Church founded the Churchmen’s Missionary Association as a venture of the Episcopal Church. These civic leaders decided to erect a free floating church for sailors, dockworkers and their families. A $50 prize was offered for the best plan submitted for a floating chapel.
The winning design was that of self-taught architect Clement L. Dennington of New York. (He may have been familiar with the floating church that served New York Harbor.) Philadelphia’s small Episcopal church was built at a shipyard in Bordentown, New Jersey, and was completed in seven months at a cost of $5270. At 90′ long and 34′ wide, the Church of the Redeemer rested on the hulls of two well-used 100-ton barges lashed together and spaced ten feet apart. As such, it was one of the most unusual religious structures ever built. Only three or four like it were said to have ever been made in this country.
These floating houses of worship were all part of the mid-19th Century’s effort of “moving the mountain to Mohammed” in terms of religion. Furthermore, the floating church met the needs of sailors and others who dwelled on the world’s oceans and rivers. The unpolished mariners did not feel comfortable on land and felt out of place being in church next to well-dressed ladies.
The Church of the Redeemer was constructed of wood in the Rural Gothic style (a.k.a. “Carpenter’s Gothic”). This architectural type was common for houses and churches in North America the mid and late 19th Century. Structures built in this style adopted Gothic elements such as pointed arches, steep gables, and towers and adapted them to American light-frame construction.
Outside, the Church of the Redeemer sported a bell and sailing flags that waved from its seventy-five-foot steeple. Its interior was painted to resemble brownstone and was filled with magnificent fresco paintings, as well as a fine pipe organ. Considered a most beautiful chapel, the Floating Church of the Redeemer became renowned in the English speaking world, such that a model of it was exhibited in the American section of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.
On a December day in 1848, the Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania consecrated the chapel. After its dedication on January 11, 1849, the floating church began ministering to seamen whose ships were docked along the Delaware River in the Philadelphia area. Missionary Richard S. Trapier commented that the church was now “in the midst of a class of persons most notorious for their irreligious and ungodly behavior.”
Since the craft was unpowered, it must have generally stayed at its Philadelphia mooring, but it may also have been pushed and pulled on the river by early steam tugboats (with paddlewheels). In this way, the buoyant house of worship became a familiar site to those living and working along the Delaware.
It was the sight of the floating gothic church making her way up and down the Delaware River, with banners flying from her 75′ foot steeple, that inspired New Jersey’s Bishop George Washington Doane to write the missionary hymn “Fling Out The Banner.”
The church could seat as many as 600 worshippers for a Sunday service. This number rarely must have been reached, as the families of mariners and longshoreman frequently left early due to seasickness. The chaplain himself sometimes had trouble staying upright during services as the floating chapel contended with waves on the Delaware. The unpowered craft also tipped sideways in high winds and even sank once. By 1853, these problems, along with the pressure of increased waterfront commerce—mercantile industries objected to dock space being tied up for non-commercial use—and rising maintenance costs, resulted in the boat’s sale.
The Churchmen’s Missionary Association then began planning for a new, more permanent, missionary church on terra firma. After spending some time at a rented loft near Dock Street, it erected a new Church of the Redeemer in 1857 at the northwest corner of Catharine and Swanson Streets, in the center of the Philadelphia waterfront’s commercial activity and not far from Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Episcopal Church. The dry-land Seamen’s Mission also provided free pews for the poor Episcopalian parishioners who lived nearby. Its location, today a vacant lot in Southwark alongside I-95, may have been where the Missionary Association had its earlier headquarters.
Then in 1878, the Seamen’s Mission moved a couple of blocks away to the northwest corner of Front and Queen Streets. Designed by Frank Furness, the new brownstone edifice contained a reading room that provided bibles and other religious reading for sailors and their shipmates. It also included a parish house, known as the “Brewer School House” in honor of its donor, Charles Brewer of Pittsburgh. The building was subsequently used as a club house for boys. And in the 1960s, it was used as the meeting place for the Queen Village Neighbors Association. The ornate Victorian structure burned down in 1974.
The Swanson and Catherine site was rebuilt as the Church Home for Seamen. Dedicated in 1891, the building was complete with a boarding home for sailors. It served the religious wants of the neighborhood into the 20th Century.
The Seamen’s Church Institute took on its current name in 1908. It ceased being an official part of the Episcopal Diocese and was incorporated as an independent interdenominational society for the Port of Philadelphia in 1919/1920. It then merged with the Churchmen’s Missionary Association in 1922.
The resulting organization first met at St. Alban’s Hotel at 2nd and Walnut Streets (where City Tavern is today), and in 1925 erected a 5-story building next door at 211 Walnut Street. (The entire block was purchased to house all the activities of the Seamen’s Church.) The new building served as inexpensive hotel with 230 rooms and a cafeteria for seafarers who might spend many weeks waiting for a voyage. Since the old Church of the Redeemer was closed in 1925, a Chapel of the Redeemer was included inside the new building. In addition, the new structure included the John A. Brown Merchant (Marine) School of Navigation and the M. Clark Mariner’s Home for Aged and Disabled Seamen.
In 1957, the property was taken over by the Federal Government to assemble Independence National Historical Park. The Institute then moved to 1222 Locust Street, despite the location so far from the Delaware River. (The building was built in 1890 as the Rio Hotel.) The former Corn Exchange Bank at 249 Arch Street (now the gallery Trust and one-time “MTV Real World House”) housed the Institute from 1976 until 2003 when the place was sometimes called the Merchant Seamen’s Center. Staff would visit ships and transport seafarers to the center. The Institute then moved to its present offices at 475 North Fifth Street, which provides the Institute space to grow.
Meanwhile, in 1853, the floating Church of the Redeemer was towed across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, where it became the landlocked St. John’s Episcopal Church. St. John’s had been incorporated on January 7, 1852, having been created as a mission of Camden’s St. Paul’s Parish. St. John’s organizers hauled the floating chapel ashore, took it off its twin hulls, placed it on rollers and dragged it inland for six or so blocks, before erecting it on a brick foundation on the northeast corner of Broadway and Royden Street. The building was re-consecrated as St. John’s Church and was used as a place of worship after September 11, 1853.
A fire devastated the storied edifice on Christmas morning, 1870 (some accounts say 1868). A new, more permanent church made of stone was promptly built on same site. The building’s cornerstone was laid on April 21, 1871, and the new St. John’s opened for worship on December 3, 1871. This structure, now known as St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, still serves Camden to this day.
Stopping by Broadway and Royden Street one recent day, a caretaker who was tidying up the outside of the church was eager to share his knowledge with me. Mike was aware of the site’s history and said that that undamaged wood from the former floating church was used to decorate or fortify the 1870s church. The building has two stone additions (including a bell tower) on the side closest to Broadway, completed in 1935 according to a cornerstone. Other outbuildings were added to the west side of the church, including the adjacent parish building in 1884-1885. On April 23, 1885, the church was consecrated and the parish building was formally opened by the bishop of the diocese.
Mike the Caretaker explained that St. John’s and St. Augustine’s had merged in the 1960s when highway construction (i.e., Interstate 676) around Camden forced the demolition of St. Augustine’s Church (once at Ninth and Sycamore Streets). St. Augustine’s brought its name to the combined congregation at the 1870s building. Mike also pointed out that the original slate roof was replaced with a shingle roof a few years ago, and that a portion of the southern wall collapsed due to the 2011 Virginia Earthquake. That damage has recently been repaired. The church is part of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey and appears to cater to an active congregation.
Returning to the floating church: the actual bell of the Church of the Redeemer still exists and is owned by the Seamen’s Church Institute in Philadelphia, after having been found via an eBay auction. The bell, 30 inches high and weighing over 300 pounds, was missing for almost 150 years. Craig Bruns, the curator of Independence Seaport Museum, spotted it for sale and alerted the Institute’s development director. Aided by donations, the board of directors purchased the bell and had it restored. The bell’s inscription documents its significance: “Presented to the Floating Church of the Redeemer by the Teachers and Scholars of Christ Church Sunday School, Philadelphia 1849. ‘The abundance of the sea shall be converted unto the Lord.’ Isaiah LX5”
Today, the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey proudly displays the bell at its headquarters at 475 North Fifth Street. The bell, which was rededicated on June 18, 2009, is near the Chapel of the Redeemer, which was also dedicated on that date. Fr. James Von Dreele, then-Executive Director of SCI, said, “We were completely surprised to see it surface after 150 years. Perhaps it was the providence of God that brought the bell to us as we consecrate a new Chapel of the Redeemer.”
The new chapel is the centerpiece of the SCI’s Seafarer Center serving visiting seamen, All Souls’ Church for the Deaf, and the local community. Each year, the nonprofit ecumenical agency ministers to some 60,000 migrant sailors (mostly Filipino) who come to Philadelphia ports from around the world, offering guidance on cross-cultural and work-related issues, as well as pastoral counseling. The sailors also enjoy international telecommunications, recreation facilities, a television lounge, and a clothing bank.
Along with those who serve them, these visiting mariners continue the rich maritime tradition of the Floating Church of the Redeemer and the many religious institutions that sprang from it.
About the author
Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.
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