What would the rivers be without the Seamen’s Church Institute? That question is almost impossible to answer. SCI has been a vital and irreplaceable part of maritime life in the United States since its founding in 1834.
At that time, merchant seamen, while very necessary for the world’s expanding commerce, were a despised underclass, often exploited and with few friends. Port boarding house owners called crimps charged them exorbitant rents and acted as illegal employment brokers, “selling” indigent seamen to pay back debts.
Long before the Jones Act or other laws that protected seamen, SCI — founded as the Young Men’s Missionary Society and affiliated with the Episcopal Church — was there with support for merchant mariners. Its history is intertwined with the United States’ maritime history. Medical and legal help, boarding houses, training courses, library and recreational facilities, postal services and, of course, chapels and spiritual aid were all provided to merchant mariners by SCI over the years. To this day, tens of thousands of mariners have fond memories of SCI’s Christmas packages of scarves, sweaters and mittens hand-knit by volunteers. Famous figures in maritime history have been associated with SCI. Alfred Thayer Mahan, America’s most famous naval theorist and a world authority on sea power, was a board member of SCI for 47 years.
One of the things that has kept SCI dynamic is its ability to constantly evolve and renew itself to keep up with changes in the world of the merchant mariner. America’s blue-water merchant fleet has declined, but river commerce continues to thrive. In 1997, SCI opened its Paducah, Ky., Center for Maritime Education, the first of its kind for America’s inland river mariners. SCI began its work along the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico in 1997. In 2017, the CME became the first maritime training center in the United States to receive ISO 9001 certification for its quality management system.
But with all the changes in the maritime world and life on the rivers, ministry and spiritual care remain at the core of what SCI does. Its Ministry on the River program currently employs two full-time river chaplains along the Upper and Lower Mississippi. With the recent fundraising campaign spearheaded by Mark Knoy, former CEO of ACBL and board member of SCI, the program hopes to double that number.
SCI touches the lives of everyone on the rivers and in the maritime world. We would like to offer our thanks and appreciation for its efforts.