PENNSYLVANIA: Historic bell a feature of new seafarers' chapel

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June 19, 2009

A long-lost bell from a floating chapel for seamen who worked on ships at Philadelphia's port 160 years ago was rededicated on June 18, along with a new chapel that serves today's seafarers.

The double celebration at the Seamen's Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey was attended by more than 175 people, including members of the SCI board of directors, donors, representatives of local churches and members of the maritime business community. Bishop Rodney Michel, with the Rev. Judith Meckling, vicar of All Souls' Episcopal Church for the Deaf, the Very Rev. Joy Segal of Southwark Deanery, and the Rev. James D. Von Dreele, chaplain to the port and executive director of the Seamen's Church Institute of Philadelphia & South Jersey, officiated at the dedication of the chapel.

SCI is one of about 150 independent port ministries founded by church denominations in North America. The 166-year-old ministry in Philadelphia has strong Episcopal roots, as evidenced by the newfound bell.

"We are blessed to have the iconic symbol of our ministry back with the purchase of this bell," said Von Dreele. "We were completely surprised to see it surface after 150 years. Perhaps it was the providence of God that brought the bell to us as we consecrate a new Chapel of the Redeemer."

The church bell, 30 inches high and weighing more than 300 pounds, dates back to the seafarer ministry's founding in 1847. It had been missing for more than 150 years since it was first cast for the Floating Church of the Redeemer, a 600-seat building mounted on a large barge in the Delaware River. Dedicated in 1849, the floating chapel was a key part of the early history of what is now known as the Seamen's Church Institute. When the chapel sank after a few years, it was salvaged and placed on dry ground in Camden, New Jersey, only to be destroyed by fire a short time later.

The existence of the floating church's bell was unknown until the curator of Philadelphia's seaport museum spotted it for sale on an Internet auction site. He alerted the development director for SCI, and longtime board of directors member Dennis Colgan Jr., aided by donations from other board members, purchased the bell and had it restored.

The bell's inscription documents its significance: "Presented to the Floating Church of the Redeemer by the Teachers and Scholars of Christ Church Sunday School, Philadelphia 1849. The abundance of the sea shall be converted unto the Lord.
Isaiah LX5."