Seamen’s Church Marks 100th Anniversary
By James Merolla at Newport This Week
The Seamen’s Church Institute is open 365 days a year, with a devotion to those who work on the waterfront, like lobstermen, fishermen and transient boaters, clients who need a roof, a shower or an inexpensive meal and Newporters who need heat, a place to stay, or help with bills.
It has been that way for 100 years. And in 2019, Seamen’s will commemorate that rich history.
“We will be celebrating our centennial with a variety of appreciation events to honor our constituents along with a great lineup of speakers and several fundraising events throughout the year,” executive director Rebecca Northup said.
Founded by parishioners of Trinity Church, Seamen’s began in 1919 as a place for sailors to gather and socialize. In 1930, through the generosity of the Wetmore Sisters, the building on Market Square honoring their parents was donated. Seamen’s has been the only occupant since.
An original mural map of Narragansett Bay greets visitors upon entry, and a grand staircase winds to a maritime library on the second floor, where there are photos of friends and mariners who have died.
The magnificent library, with thousands of seafaring books, was dedicated a few years ago to Henry H. “Harry” Anderson, now 97, the former commodore of the New York Yacht Club, a longtime board member who is still active in institute affairs.
Off the library is The Chapel of the Sea, with its series of fresco paintings and gorgeous bas relief in wood, serving as a spiritual center for contemplation. There is also the peaceful Memorial Garden on the street level.
The murals, painted by Newport artist Durr Freedley in 1933, depict scripture or saints. “Crow’s Nest” located on the third floor, offers affordable lodging to the public. The ten rooms were originally designed as a dormitory for sailors and fisherman.
A new kind of deck greets young people and educators on the second floor. The Discovery Deck, which opened in November, is an interactive, educational exhibit showcasing the maritime industry of Newport and Narragansett Bay. It features boatbuilding, fishing, aquaculture, shipping, the Navy, research and more.
Ann Souder, president of the board of directors, helped re-design the interior.
“[Seamen’s] has been able to adapt to the needs of the waterfront through the past 100 years, which has kept it relevant through Depression, wars, redevelopment, changing environment and fisheries,” she said. “Seamen’s has been able to identify community needs throughout the decades and engage financial support both locally and nationally because those needs are at the heart of caring for those less fortunate. It also fulfills a role in the community that is not served by any other facility in town. We are an integral part of what makes Newport such an amazing city.”
Since its founding, Seamen’s has been managed by a dedicated board of directors, along with hard-working superintendents and staff. Throughout the years, the board recognized the needs of Seamen’s constituency and adapted its programs to provide support to military personnel, commercial fishermen, maritime workers, recreational and professional sailors and members of the community.
Starting in the 1980s, volunteers brought hot stew directly to fishermen through their “Soup to the Docks” program. (The program was discontinued in 2016 because there were not enough fishermen left at the docks).
But Thanksgiving Day dinner and Christmas brunch are still served to more than 100 each holiday. Last year, Seamen’s made news for being the only emergency overnight warming center in the state, housing over 55 people for 11 bitterly cold nights when temperatures plunged as low as 10 degrees below zero.
“As we celebrate the past 100 years and look to the future, our hope is that the public gets a better understanding of Seamen’s and the resources the building and programs provide to the community,” Northup said.
Northup has worked for the past three years to put structures in place to sustain the small nonprofit. It’s the old adage, she said. “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he never goes hungry again.”
“Seamen’s has helped thousands upon thousands of mariners through the years,” she said. “Every kind of mariner has been served through this building; sea captains, navy personnel, fishermen, divers, sailors and maritime students.”
Northup points out that people from all walks of life have been helped.
“That has always been the beauty of this location and the unique features of the building,” she said. “The mariner’s library, historic chapel, garden, guest rooms and café attract many different kinds of people for different purposes. If you were to stop in during the summer, you’d see locals chatting over coffee in the lounge, tourists admiring the 1930s entranceway mural of Narragansett Bay, an AA group meeting in the library, sailors picking up packages, kids trying out the block and tackle station in the Discovery Deck and visitors checking into their rooms on the third floor. Seamen’s is a unique example of community and diversity.”
Historically, the superintendent would perform weddings, baptisms and memorial services in the chapel. People still use it for ceremonies, and there is a sense of sacredness when you step inside.
“The backlit psalm around the ceiling is especially poignant when remembering the men and women who’ve given their lives in service or work on the water,” Northup said.
Jack Grant, who served as superintendent from 2002 to 2010, said Seamen’s mission is to make a difference to all who enter the building. But the mission has changed, he added.
“In 1918, the emphasis was on providing services to military, primarily Navy, enlisted personnel stationed in Newport,” he said. “With the removal of the Atlantic Fleet from Newport and the decline in commercial fishing, Seamen’s has identified maritime education as an integral program component.”
Going forward, Souder said, “We need to establish a sound building for the next 100 years, introduce our children to the joys of the bay and offer them options for working in marine businesses.”
Rick Grosvenor, who has been affiliated with Seamen’s for 28 years, serving as board president for 11 said the institute has survived because of the “dedicated and unselfish stewardship of a board populated with genial members of diverse backgrounds and an operational flexibility that allows the institute to respond quickly and efficiently to the changing needs of the community.”
He remembers the Russian family that was living on a hobbled boat in the harbor during a cold Newport winter. “The husband [had been] arrested on an immigration issue when they had to drop mooring here for repairs, and the wife and children spent a great deal of time with us while they worked their way through their legal challenges,” he said.
In another instance, Seamen’s came to the aid of the crew of an abandoned boat after the officers deserted the ship.
“The crew were left to fend for themselves, unpaid and unable to afford tickets home,” he said. “We helped them in their efforts to be compensated as well as assisting them in arranging their trips home.”
It’s stories like these that lead Grosvenor to declare, “I believe that we represent Newport’s heart.”