Monday, May 29, 2017

New Bedford Remembrance

Memorial Day is when we remember those we’ve lost.  My hometown of New Bedford lost many men at sea during whaling or fishing.   Many were lost in the 1800s.   The 1900s lost its share as well – hard-working, adventurous men providing the manpower and skill necessary to bring back to port whales and fish for which New Bedford was and still is well known.

Last Friday I attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at the renovated New Bedford Seamen’s Bethel now joined to the Mariners’ Home.  According to the plaque outside the Home, “Whaling men spent much of their lives at sea.  The ship was their home.  Back in port, most of the poor, unskilled sailors knew no one in New Bedford and were essentially homeless until the next voyage.  

In 1850 the daughter of William Rotch, Jr. donated her father’s home to shelter and feed needy seamen.  After the whaling industry declined, retired whalemen, merchant seamen, and fishermen lived here.  The Mariners’ Home provides lodging for mariners to this day.”

The Bethel was to save mariners’ souls.  “After months at sea, many whaling men were unable to resist the temptations of this port city.  In 1832 the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen opened the mariners’ chapel ‘to protect the rights and interests of Seamen, and to furnish them with…moral, intellectual and religious instruction.’  

By supplying Bibles and nondenominational services the Bethel (chapel hoped to combat all those influenced to which the port’s mariners fell prey – liquor, licentiousness, and dishonest merchants.  A survey in 1852 found 37 ‘liquor shops” and 21 ‘houses of ill repute’ in this ward alone.”

Adorning the walls of the Bethel are many plaques to remember all those lost at sea, whether during whaling or fishing.  As noted on one plaque, “O God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  

Inside the Bethel we find many pews and benches as well as the ship’s pulpit from which many sermons were delivered.   I suppose Father Healey wouldn’t be inclined to place a prow on our ambo.  We wouldn’t be harpooning – only casting our nets.    In that way the renovated lectern would match the window at the rear of OUR chapel – my favorite window.

Deacon David Pierce

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