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German Seamen's Mission of New York, 1907-2001

This article was written by Pastor Clint Padgitt for the Spring/Summer 2001 Newsletter of the International Association for the Study of Maritime Mission (IASMM).

German Seamen's Mission of New York, 1907-2001

by Clint Padgitt

The German Seamen's Mission of New York was founded in 1907 in Hoboken, New Jersey, as a purely German-American organization, as it has remained to this day. The original impulse came from German-American Lutheran clergy, and the financing came from private donors and from two big German shipping companies. The Mission's development mirrors the history of German immigration and trade with the United States in the twentieth century. It also illustrates the desire of German Lutherans in New York to reach out to people from the "old country" with special needs arriving in the USA.

Today's German Seamen's Mission of New York represents a 1974 merger of three German organizations: the Lutheran Emigrants' Association (das Deutsche Emigrantenhaus), the Assocation for the Relief of Indigent Germans (also known as Freunde der Freundlosen), and the Society for the Care of German Seamen in the Port of New York. The oldest of these organizations is the Lutheran Emigrants' Association, which was founded in 1860 to assist the enormous number of German immigrants arriving in New York. Its building on State Street in Manhattan was a first home for many Germans newly arrived in a strange country. New Immigration laws requiring immigrants to have a sponsor removed the need for many of the organzation's services, and after 1933 it maintained only an office for counselling immigrants.

The Association for the Relief of Indigent Germans assisted infirm and aged people of German extraction who were in hospitals and old age homes on Welfare Island, where a church was built and dedicated in 1919. The same work was later continued at Seaview Hospital and the Farm Colony on Staten Island.

The Hoboken Years

The impulse for the founding of the Society for the Care of German Seamen in 1907 came from Dr. D. C. Berkemeier, pastor and director of the Wartburg Orphan's Farm School in Mount Vernon, New York. Having heard in Germany about church work among seafarers, Dr. Berkemeier rallied the support of churches and pastors in the New York area to to bring over a seamen's pastor from Germany. The Germans arranged to send Pastor Willy Thun, who had been a seamen's pastor in Scotland and who began his work in New York in September 1907. With the help of many Lutheran churches (most of which were composed of German immigrants), the German shipping companies (especially the Hamburg-America Line and North German Lloyd), a Seamen's House in Hoboken, New Jersey, was purchased for $12,000 and dedicated on November 23, 1907.

Hoboken was chosen as the site for the building because most German merchant ships at that time docked along the New Jersey waterfront opposite Manhattan. Hoboken had already come to be known to seamen jokingly as a "suburb of Bremen." To give an idea of the number of German seamen in port in those years, the records show that in the first three months of 1908 there were 7,575 seamen who visited the Mission in Hoboken, and over 18,000 during the entire year. The Mission provided a quiet and safe place to stay, to meet others, and also a place where one could deposit one's pay and have the money sent to one's family in Germany.

Pastor Thun returned to Germany in 1909 and served for a further 45 years as seamen's pastor in Hamburg-Altona. He was succeeded by Pastor H. Bruckner from Weimar, who remained until 1954. During these decades in Hoboken, many deacons were sent from the St. Stephen's Foundation in Hannover to assist in the work among seamen. One of these, Heinrich Hoffmann, was House Father for 40 years (1919-1959). The Mission was constantly growing. In 1910 and 1911 two more houses were bought, and in 1925 a new wing with rooms for 170 people was built at a cost of $90,000.

World War I

Many German seamen were left stranded in New York at the outbreak of the war in 1914, with no way to return to Germany. About 250 seamen had to sleep on mattresses on the floor of the Mission, and ships' cooks were engaged to cook meals for them. The seamen set up a small workshop where about 100 men made models of the German ship Emden. About 30,000 models bearing the legend Seemannshilfe ("Seamen's Aid") 1914-15 were sold at $0.50 each. The men also made Easter rabbits and dolls.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, Seamen's Pastor Bruckner was interned on nearby Ellis Island for six months together with all the German seamen who had been ashore in Hoboken. In the spring of 1918 the Mission in Hoboken was seized by the United States authorities and occupied by 300 soldiers until October 1919.

After World War I the German merchant fleet gradually expanded. Many of the ships were on "tramp" routes which rarely took them to Germany. The need for providing books and other amenities on board the ships grew enormously, since seamen were away from home for months or even years at a time. The depression on the 1930s affected shipping greatly and also had a negative impact on the finances and work of the Seamen's Mission in New York.

World War II

Times became even more difficult when the Second World War broke out. There were, of course, no German ships in port, and the work among seafarers came to a virtual standstill. The Alien Property Custodian took control of the Mission in Hoboken, confiscated the library and exercised oversight over the income and expenses.

At the end of the war, the property was returned to the Mission. At that time about fifty German seamen who were naturalized American citizens were staying in the building, and ten elderly gentlemen remained there to spend their retirement.

The Post-War Years

As Germany began to rebuild after the war, more and more German merchant vessels began to arrive in the port of New York and New Jersey. In 1954 Pastor Herbert Patzelt succeeded Pastor Bruckner and dedicated himself to a new type of work among seamen: visiting on board ship. The modern ships were in port only one or two days, and the crews had little time to go ashore. The Mission in Hobokon was no longer near most of the ships and came to be visted by fewer and fewer seafarers. To help meet the expenses, part of the building was rented to the Waterfront Commission.

In 1958 Pstor Patzelt returned to Germany, where he served in parish ministry. (He now lives in retirement in Munich.) At this time Dr. Heinrich P. Suhr became president of the Seamen's Mission, succeeding Pastor Heinrich Kropp. At the beginning of 1959 Pastor Hans-Otto Zbinden arrived from Philadelphia to become the new seamen's pastor, and Mr. Alexander Birnbaum became "House Father" after retirement of Deacon Hoffmann.

In April 1959 a new Seamen's House was put into service: a brownstone property at 348 West 22nd Street in Manhattan, near the West Side piers and convenient to seamen. This building was purchased with the proceeds from the side of the old Deutsches Emigrantenhaus.

In 1964 Pastor Zbinden retired, and Pastor Otto Winter, who had founded a mission to seamen in Toronto, came down from Canada to become the seamen's pastor. His emphasis came to be visiting on board ship, serving as friend and counselor to countless seamen who seldom had time to go ashore. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the German Seamen's Mission of New York in 1967, Pastor Winter was presented with the order of Merit First Class of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverdienstkreuz) for his ministry to German seamen and immigrants.

In 1974 the German Seamen's Mission became an agency of social ministry of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Lutheran Church in America. In 1979 the old Mission in Hoboken was sold and the work was consolidated in Manhatten.

The Present and the Future

In 1978 the Rev. Clint Padgitt, the present seamen's pastor, succeeded Pastor Winter, who had retired and returned to Toronto. In the continuing ministry to seafarers today two factors are particualarly important. One is containerization and the concentration of ships in Port Newark/Port Elizabeth in New Jersey. Most container ships dock far from the city and remain in port for twelve to sixteen hours. A seamen's pastor has to be well-organized and mobile so that he can visit mariners on board their ships. The second factor is the need for co-operation with other chaplains and organizations, especially with Seafarers & International House of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has a modern eleven-storey building at 123 East 15th Street in Manhattan with overnight accommodations for 100 people. Maintaining an office at this fellow Lutheran agency made it unnecessary to maintain a separate German Seamen's House on West 22nd Street, which was sold and the proceeds invested in furthering the Mission's day-to-day ministry, which involves going to the seafarers aboard the ships where they live and work.

Thanks to a taxation policy that has encouraged investment in merchant vessels, Germany today has one of the largest fleets of modern container ships, many of whch are chartered to companies all around the world. A typical German vessel has around five Germans and an international crew from the Philippines, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Eastern Europe and many other countries. The chaplain cares for all of them without distinction, filling the role of friend, helper, guide, counsellor and pastor.

The German Seamen's Mission of New York has been serving seafarers in the name of Jesus Christ for 94 years. Countless thousands of men and women who come to our country on ships have been touched by this ministry and have seen and felt that the Church cares for them even in a foreign place. Without the dedication and hard work of many people through the years this outreach would not have been possible. Thanks to their support, we can look forward to seeing it continue for many years to come.

Postcript: In 1998, the German Seamen's Mission of New York became a constituent member of the worldwide German Seamen's Mission based in Bremen, Germany. However, it still retains its independent legal and financial status.