Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) has been a constant presence in Greater Philadelphia since 1843, a time when clipper ships were fast and the telegraph and the railroads were fairly new.
In its first incarnation, SCI was a 75-feet high, 600-seat church that floated on the Delaware River – built in 1848. This floating chapel, moored at Dock and Spruce Streets in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, served merchant seafarers for ten years.
Several incarnations later, Seamen’s Church Institute was a 5-story hotel covering the entire Center City block of Dock Street between Front and 2nd, with 230 hotel rooms, a restaurant, an auditorium, a home for aged and disabled seamen, a chapel, and a school of navigation. During World War II, this building served allied naval crews and officers in addition to merchant ship workers. It was demolished to make way for Independence National Park in 1957.
A couple moves later, in 1974, Seamen’s Church Institute was located in the former Corn Exchange Bank at the corner of 3rd & Arch Streets in the heart of Old City. With the advent of new technologies and new shipping patterns, the needs of seafarers continued to change. SCI responded by transitioning away from housing and toward center-based hospitality, social services, and advocacy by acquiring a property at 475 N. 5th St., near Spring Garden Street. The 5th Street property included a modest Seafarer Center with television, computer and communication capability, along with a beautiful small chapel.
As the industry continued to transform with rapid ship turnaround, security issues, and personal technology, Seamen’s Church Institute became more agile, focusing on shipboard services. SCI downsized into greatly reduced space at the Spring Garden location, and vans supplied the mobility for Chaplains and Ship Visitors/Host Transporters to bring hospitality, companionship, kindness, advocacy, and secure transport to seafarers. In the summer of 2018 Seamen’s Church moved to its current location in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which offers ample parking for vans and visitors as well as convenient access to the port terminals that are now the most important point of service to seafarers.