A Stranger in a Strange Land ‘

That old phrase describes the seaman who dies in New York, who lies alone in the hospital, or sometimes in the Institute. He turns to us when the end is near, confident that to us he is not a stranger, that what is left when he no longer can worry or arrange, will be reverently cared for.’[1]

Seamen's Church Institute Plot, The Evergreens Cemetery, BrooklynThe Seamen’s Church Institute plot in the Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, has the second largest number of First World War CWGC graves in a single plot in the United States—the largest, with 10 men of the Royal Flying Corps and one from the Royal Air Force, being in Greenwood Memorial Park, Fort Worth, Texas.[2]

There are nine CWGC burials in the plot:

Trimmer Walter John Joseph Bowles, Mercantile Marine Reserve
Able Seaman Thomas Drinkwater, Royal Navy
Private William Richard Eveleigh, Royal Marine Light Infantry
Leading Seaman William Charles John Geeves, Royal Naval Reserve
Trimmer Percy Samuel Tomas Hyett, Mercantile Marine Reserve
Able Seaman Patrick McDonagh, Royal Naval Reserve
Stoker 1st Class Henry John Gardner Miller, Royal Navy
Scullion William Bertram Parr, Mercantile Marine Reserve
Stoker 1st Class Alfred Weeden, Royal Navy

The history of ministries serving the needs of merchant sailors on the eastern seaboard of the United States began in Boston in the period after the war of 1812 with the founding of the Boston Society for the Religious and Moral Improvement of Seamen. Similar ministries were founded in New York—the Marine Bible Society in 1817, and the New York Port Society in 1818.

The Young Men’s Church Mission Society, an Episcopalian missionary organisation founded in New York City 1834, began to concentrate its efforts on seamen in 1843 and that year established on the East River its first floating chapel. From that organisation stemmed the Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society for Seamen in the City and Port of New York, which was incorporated on 12 April 1844.

The Society was chartered to ‘…provide by building, purchase, hiring or otherwise, so many floating or other churches for seamen, at different points in the City and Port of New York, as they may deem proper, in which Churches the seats shall be free…’[3]

The Seamen's Church Institute
The Seamen’s Church Institute

On 5 April 1906 the Society changed its ‘cumbersome name’ to become the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York.[4] In 1913 it opened a new headquarters in an impressive building in downtown Manhattan.

From its earliest days the Institute’s chaplains had conducted burial services in various cemeteries but many seamen who died while their ships were visiting New York were buried in a potter’s field.

In 1851 the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn opened. That year a small plot of land in the cemetery was gifted to the Society for use for the burial of sailors.

In 1853 a seven-acre plot for sailors—known now as ‘Seamen’s Grounds’—was purchased by the Seamen’s Cemetery Association with a grant of money provided by the United States Congress. That section lies closer to Evergreens Cemetery entrance and is marked by an impressive monument ‘For Sailors of All Nations ’, erected in 1853 to commemorate the dedication of the plot and the many sailors whose graves would be unmarked.

The Sailors' Monument in Sailors' Grounds, Evergreens Cemetery
The Sailors’ Monument in Sailors’ Grounds, Evergreens Cemetery

By the late summer of 1918, as the influenza epidemic took its toll, the Seamen’s Church Institute plot became full:

A line of caskets in our chapel gave mute testimony to the havoc wrought by the disease among sailormen. Sometimes a British flag was draped over the casket, sometimes a French, an Italian or an American. Early in the morning or late at night the solemn processions left our building and proceeded to ‘Evergreen’. ‘ [5]

As a consequence, in October 1918 the Institute bought a new plot in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Flushing and a new, white marble monument was erected there, which shows a bronze reproduction of the seal of the Institute.

In the Evergreens Cemetery, in addition to the nine burials in the Seamen’s Institute Plot, the CWGC commemorates a Chinese merchant sailor buried in Seamen’s Grounds, Fireman Low On (incorrectly commemorated as ‘Ou Loo’—his gravestone will be replaced), and two sailors and a soldier buried in Nazareth section:

Serjeant George Birkenhead, Machine Gun Corps
Leading Seaman Sydney Stephen Milliner, Royal Naval Reserve
Leading Seaman Samuel Gordon Wills, Royal Navy (incorrectly commemorated by the CWGC as ‘Willis’—his gravestone will also be replaced)

William P. Gonzalez for the photographs of the Evergreens Cemetery.

1. (Back) ‘New Cemetery Plot.’ (1918). The Lookout. The magazine of the Sailors’ Church Institute. Volume 9, number 10, p 10. New York: Seamen’s Church Institute.
2. (Back) There are larger concentrations of Second World War casualties in a number of cemeteries across the United States.
3. (Back) ‘An Act…’ (1845). Seamen’s Church Institute of New York, Annual Report. p 17.
4. (Back) ‘Changes in Stations and in the Name.’ (1906). Seamen’s Church Institute of New York, Annual Report. p 4.
5. (Back) ‘Where Sailors Lie Buried’. (1932). The Lookout. The magazine of the Sailors’ Church Institute. Volume 23, number 6, p 4. New York: Seamen’s Church Institute.

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