This Unique Agency Has Served Seafarers Since 1834

Currently based in Port Newark, the Seamen’s Church Institute of the Episcopal Church advocates for the spiritual—and earthly—needs of mariners.

Joanne Kaplan Bartosik shows off the knitted goods available to visiting seafarers at the Seamen’s Church. Photo by Alex Fradkin

The Seamen’s Church Institute of the Episcopal Church has been tending to the spiritual and temporal needs of seafarers at the Port of New York since 1834. SCI started with a floating wooden chapel in lower Manhattan and moved to its current location in Port Newark in the 1960s.

The chapel takes up just one section of the institute’s modern, two-story building near the docks. In addition to pastoral care, the group provides legal, educational and transportation services. Its vans shuttle seafarers to the nearby Mills at Jersey Gardens mall (most don’t have time for a trip to Manhattan).

SCI has three employees and numerous volunteers who meet with mariners aboard their vessels to offer counseling or companionship. One of the fulltime employees, 25-year-old Cora Koehler, discovered SCI as an intern while studying for her master of divinity degree. “It was a little more interesting than youth ministry,” she says. On a typical day, she ascends the gangway to one of the vessels and sits in the mess, or dining room. Often, the conversation is casual, but sometimes mariners want to talk through difficult experiences, like the death of a grandparent or a wife’s miscarriage back home.

Related: How Port Newark Moves the World


“I’m meeting with, eating with, celebrating with people who are so different from me; so many different cultures, so many different religions,” says Koehler.

The SCI also addresses issues like piracy, isolation and nonpayment of wages, and otherwise advocates for those who spend months at sea. “We are the Americans that seafarers need when they get here,” says Douglas Stevenson, director of the SCI’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights. “You help people; you don’t ask who they are. There are a lot of ways to proclaim the Gospel.”

One of the most visible ways SCI connects those on land and sea is through its annual Christmas at Sea program, which distributes gift sets to visiting seafarers. The gift bags contain toiletries and hand-knit hats and scarves donated by more than 800 volunteers from around the country.

The program began in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The gifts are stored and assembled throughout the year and given out from November to January. A total of 3,892 gifts were distributed in the 2018 holiday season.

“Our volunteers are as varied as our knits,” says Joanne Kaplan Bartosik, director of the program. The recipients, she says, “are really blown away by this.”

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