Monday, June 12, 2017

Sentimental Journey

In the earliest years of my seafaring career, the great city of Philadelphia and its environs loomed large on my itinerary.  I first arrived there as a cadet on the old State of Maine on Friday, June 11, 1976.  She spent three days docked at Penn’s Landing, a recently constructed center city waterfront tourist venue.  I wondered if this was really the site where William Penn had landed in 1682, but I never researched this point.  Next, on Tuesday, May 3, 1977, I traveled on Amtrak and then a local commuter train to Marcus Hook, seventeen miles downstream from Philadelphia, and there I joined the tanker New Jersey Sun as an apprentice.  She sailed for points south on Monday, May 9.  Finally, for three weeks in August of 1978, I sailed around Philadelphia and its suburbs on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers as a deckhand aboard the oil barge Interstate 50.

In all these travels, my association with the Philadelphia area lay primarily with industrial facilities.  I was on intimate terms with the Sun Oil and BP refineries in Marcus Hook, the Gulf docks at Point Breeze, the Interstate tug and barge headquarters and repair shop at City Dock, the Pennsylvania Railroad coal pier (which also sported oil piping) in South Philly, and the big oil storage facilities across the Delaware in Eagle Point and Delair, New Jersey.  In the little free time that I had, I visited a friend at Villanova University and dined at Sweeney’s in South Philly.  When not underway on the water, I walked and rode trains.  By these methods, I came to know the “guts of the city,” as we called them, quite well.  I loved Philadelphia!

But I saw only a small part of the cleaner and more sublime side of the city.  One of the oldest and most important settlements in the United States, Philadelphia stands out as one of the historical, cultural, educational, and religious capitals of the country.  It is home to famous historical sites dating to the colonial era; major museums, libraries, and learned societies; world renowned colleges and universities; and a denominationally diverse collection of churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and temples.  Three of these structures commanded my attention on a recent return to this city of my vagabond youth.

On Tuesday, May 16, 2017, Miss Patty and I traveled on Amtrak to Philadelphia.  She was on her way to business meetings; I was on vacation.  On arrival at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s magnificent 30th Street Station, we took a taxi to the Sheraton Hotel on North 17th Street, our headquarters for the next two days.  From this location, everything I wanted to visit lay within reasonable walking distance.

On Wednesday morning, I set out.  My first important stop was Penn’s Landing, where my initial introduction to Philadelphia had taken place 41 years ago.  The old State of Maine was long gone, of course, her berth now occupied by the sailing ship Gazela.  Otherwise, little had changed.  The Delaware River stretched out placidly before me, and I thought of the many transits I had made of this great river aboard the Interstate 50.  I had passed by Penn’s Landing and passed under the adjacent Benjamin Franklin Bridge numerous times.  As the Interstate 50 plowed along, I painted her decks, fittings, and superstructure, often with the music from the hit film Saturday Night Fever blaring from the radio.  I was a teenager then.  Life was good, and it seemed to stretch out endlessly before me.  Little did I realize just how quickly it would all go by.  For some of us, it would go by much too quickly and be over much too soon.

From Penn’s Landing I walked a half-mile south to my next destination, a building that I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.  This was the Gloria Dei Church, locally known as the Old Swedes’ Church.  A colonial structure dating to 1698, it originally served a Swedish Lutheran congregation.  Today it is Episcopalian.  While this structure’s colonial and denominational history is very interesting, I had come primarily for its maritime significance.  Situated across Delaware Avenue from the Delaware River and the old break-bulk cargo ship piers, Old Swedes’ seemed an appropriate place to honor those “that go down to the sea in ships” (Ps. 107:23).  It was precisely for this purpose that I had come to visit.

Entering through the red-painted front door—red is the ecclesiastical color of welcome—I found that I had this small and cozy church entirely to myself.  Sitting momentarily in the rearmost pew, I looked around to get my bearings and noticed several memorial plaques on the walls.  I had come to see one of these in particular, and there it was.  On the back wall, under the balcony, and on the right-hand side of the church, was the large bronze plaque dedicated to the memory of the cargo ship Poet and her crew.  With a feeling of reverence, I approached it and read the main inscription:

In Memory of The 34 Men of The
U S Flag Merchant Vessel
Lost At Sea  October 25, 1980
Approximate Position
38 to 39 N Lat  63 to 66 W Long

The Serenity Prayer followed, and the next panel listed the crewmen’s names, ages, and hometowns.  One of these, Mark S. Henthorne, was a former school acquaintance of mine. I had known him slightly in Maine and aboard the old State of Maine.  He sailed as third assistant engineer aboard the Poet.  He left the girl he had planned to marry behind.  Very sad.

Another officer, Leroy A. Warren, may have known my grandparents.  As a young mate he had sailed aboard the American Export Lines’ passenger ships Constitution and Independence in the 1950s and 1960s.  My grandparents made ten voyages aboard these vessels between 1956 and 1968.  It’s possible that they may have sailed with and met this man on one or more of these voyages.  Aboard the Poet, he sailed as Master.  He left a wife and several children behind.  Also very sad.

I studied the memorial plaque carefully and took several photographs of it.  I noticed the ages of the crewmen and realized that 29 of the 34 were younger when they perished than I am now.  A very disturbing statistic.  I also recalled that I had read the book about the Poet[1] and had written something myself[2] about the loss of this ship and its crew.  Sitting down again in the pew in front of the plaque, I spent several minutes in quiet contemplation.

This time passed quickly.  When I thought that I should leave and continue about the day’s activities, I found that I could not go.  At least, not yet.  An intangible but clearly discernible spiritual presence, for lack of a better description, seized upon my mind and bid me stay a little longer.  At first I dismissed this as imagination.  I had seen what I had come to see and done what I had come to do.  What was left?  But the feeling intensified.  I felt compelled to remain a while longer, and so I did.  More time for quiet meditation, and an opportunity to pray for the repose of these men’s souls and for solace for their families.  The old Roman incantation that I had learned in my youth came to mind:

Requien aeternam dona eis, O Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In pace requiescant.  Amen.

In time, the intensity of the feeling that I must stay diminished.  A happier thought, that I was visiting with old friends, took its place.  This seemed strange at first, for I had known only one of these men, and just slightly at that.  But then I remembered Joseph Conrad’s famous lines, and I realized that I shared “the strong bond of the sea”[3] and the “fellowship of the craft”[4] with these seamen.  That explained everything.  With a sense of accomplishment, then, I rose to leave the Old Swedes’ Church.  I felt confident that these seamen were not “lost at sea” but were truly in God’s hands.  He was taking good care of them in “a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care and sorrow” (Alma 40:12).

After nearly an hour in the Old Swedes’ Church, I returned to the center city area where I ate lunch and did some sightseeing.  This was very interesting, but another more sublime experience awaited me.

In the afternoon, with the Poet and her crew still on my mind, I visited two more churches: the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and dating to 1846, and the Philadelphia Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, built in 2015.  Situated across Vine Street from one another, these magnificent and beautiful buildings complemented each other very well architecturally.

I entered the cathedral initially to admire its artistic grandeur.  But then a staff member met me near the front door and explained that while I was welcome to visit, an ordination rehearsal was taking place.  Two young men would be ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, she informed me, and they with several seminarians and older priests were preparing for the ceremony.  Watching them rehearse for this important event was a fascinating experience.  It led me to consider the tremendous personal sacrifices these young fellows would make in order to fully dedicate themselves to doing the Lord’s work for both the living and the dead.  I found this very inspiring and worthy of my utmost respect.

Similar thoughts filled my mind across the way at the Philadelphia Temple.  Men and women with careers and families sacrificed much of their personal time in order to participate in ordinances of salvation for the living and the dead and assist them in their progression into the presence of God.  This, too, I found inspiring and deserving of the greatest respect.

In both of these sacred spaces, I thought of the crew of the Poet and others who have left this life prematurely.  I appreciated deeply the opportunity I had to visit their memorial plaque in the Old Swedes’ Church and to pray for the safety of their souls.  And I hoped that in the Philadelphia Temple the ordinances for their continued spiritual sanctification would be done someday soon.

In the meantime, as John Henry Newman prayed, “in His mercy may He give [them] safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!”[5]   

Following are some photographs from my visit to Philadelphia:

The sailing ship Gazela moored at Penn's Landing, the site that hosted the State of Maine in June of 1976.  In the background stands the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church and churchyard, a half-mile south of Penn's Landing.

Three views of the memorial plaque honoring the Poet and her crew inside the Old Swedes' Church.  A very sublime sight.
A pen-and-ink rendering of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  From a brochure provided by the cathedral staff.
The Philadelphia Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  From a brochure produced for the temple's dedication.

[1] Robert J. Pessek, The Poet Vanishes: An American Voyage, Allston, Massachusetts: 1st Books Library, 2000; biographical information on Captain Leroy Warren from p. 75-77 & 101-102; information on Mark Henthorne from p. 207-208.  Also, Mark’s surname is misspelled on the plaque.
[2] Included in my essay “The Dead.”
[3] Joseph Conrad, “Youth,” in Tales of Land and Sea, Garden City, NY: Hanover House: 1916, p. 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Sermon 20: Wisdom and Innocence,” in The Newman Reader, at

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