The institute was founded in 1834 by sailors to provide medical care, education and pastoral services to sailors. They also need an accessible and nearby place of worship to pray! This is how the very first barge church was born: Our Savior, a barge anchored on Pike Street, south of Manhattan. It will quickly become an icon in the city, but thirty years later, it will be abandoned (in 1866) due to the decomposition of its materials.
A second floating church, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was in turn built in 1846 on the West Side of Manhattan. In addition to regular religious services, the sanctuary provides parishioners with a reading room and a listening group to help sailors with alcohol problems.
Unlike earthly churches, by definition, floating churches move freely. Thus, for a few decades, the Church of the Holy Comforter will be moved several times, from one quay to another, before finding its final location on the quay of Hubert Street. The prohibitive maintenance costs lead once again to the abandonment of this second floating church in 1868.
But the Americans never admit defeat, so a year later they built a third floating church, called, like the first, the Church of Our Savior, moored on the East River. This will be the third and last, the last service in this sanctuary will be on Christmas Day 1910.
The fascinating history of floating churches is well documented in archives from the Ecclesiastical Institute of Sailors of New York and New Jersey, which digitized photos and documents from the time. They testify that New York’s floating churches were “unique among church structures around the world” (although Cambodians, for example, are quite proud of their floating Catholic church at Chong Kneas). Discover the incredible floating churches of New York:
This “chauvinism” is not entirely correct because Big Apple was not the only city in the United States where believers prayed on the water. Indeed, at the same time, in 1848, the Ecclesiastical Institute of Sailors of Philadelphia also built a floating church to address the concerns of “rough sailors who did not feel out of place in a church with well-dressed ladies” !