The Seamen’s Chapel

If you walk in the side door of Iona, before you get to the pulpit you will find a small side chapel. Side chapels are not a regular feature in Presbyterian churches, but an exception has been made at Iona. Given the close proximity to the port, it’s not hard to imagine why such a chapel was created – an  outreach programme of sorts that provided a contemplative space for sailors away from home. This is a space originally created with seamen in mind. 

The church has had a long established history with the Port and the sailors who visit from both New Zealand and abroad.

In the early 1860s the harbour-master Captain William Thomson called a meeting. People interested on what Thomson had to say turned up to discuss the idea of a mariners’ church. Similar organisations were already established in other ports around New Zealand, and the world).  This newly formed group were keen to deliver religious instruction and christian hospitality to seamen visiting the port. 

Through this enthusiastic group the Bethel Union Society was formed and a committee was established including the Rev. William Johnstone. Rev. Johnstone had been instrumental in connecting, church, faith and shaping the community itself. Not only was he involved in establishing schools for girls, he formed and  intense interest in the work of the Bethel Union Mission to Seamen. 

Co-operative work for the seamen began with the meeting of ministers. The Port Chalmers Ministers’ Association meet weekly to discuss ideas during the next decade. During the 1870s they continued to meet to discuss the issues of the day, including working together with Johnstone in the Sailors’ Mission. Books and other material were provided for sailors and the group would frequently visit the sailors on board the ships docked in the port.

Rev. H. Gilbert stepped this ups, eventually acting as a type of social worker, who heard and discussed difficulties the men were having alongside any spiritual guidance they wanted.

It was after this that the idea to create a room or space for sailors to meet away from the ship in Port itself. Enter Alexander Falconer. Falconer ran a hairdressing business and used this space to offer sailors hot baths and other courtesies breathing life into the Bethal Union Mission. Falconer went further. He eventually provide a room in his own place for visiting seafarers who were supplied with reading and writing materials, and offered good Christian friendship. It was this room that Falconer called the “sailor’s rest.”

Falconer continued  his work when the Bethel Union Mission eventually fell over. From 1873 Alexander and his  group of friends instituted a Sunday evening sing song, for sailors at a loose end. The devout Christian magistrate also opened up the courthouse for this purpose. Soon the  popularity of these services became so great that the court could no longer hold those in attendance.

These meetings then took place in the Sailor’s Loft. Around this time a young sailor by the name of Frank T. Bullen attended his first service. This lead to his conversion to christianity and changed his life entirely. So much so Bullen became a notable maritime author. Some of his books can be found on display at Iona. Bullen eventually returned to sea but his books have referenced his time in Port with fond and warm memories of that time.

Falconer fundraised to build a Sailor’s Rest in George Street, Port Chalmers, and within a year raised over £800 to build a substantial stone building fit for purpose. Eventually with the increase of shipping to Dunedin, Falconer was to govern two Sailors’ Rests  – in Dunedin and Port Chalmers. On his death, the Sailor’s Rest became part of the British and Foreign Sailors Society, and eventually renamed the British Sailors’ Society.

Enter the Rev George Jeffreys. 

George Jeffreys was an incredible servant to his God, in fact that’s another story in its own right. As the minister of the Port Chalmers parish from 1951-57, George began to shape the lives of some of the most disadvantaged members of society.  Given the time of his arrival in Port coincided with the 1951 Waterfront Lockout, he had a job to do. He brought with him his experience in Bluff and a time at Wellington’s Seaman’s Mission. 

During this period there were around 200 unemployed men, whose families depended on the income that was now unavailable. Fishermen, watersiders, engineers and others could no longer provide for their families. Jeffreys noticed that these men weren’t well-represented in church and that the church members needed to extend their hand out to a community in need. Jefferies set about seeing to the emotional and communal well-being of those in need.

One of his chief concerns was the disconnect between the Church, its teachings and  the Port. Life wasn’t easy for some of the workers at the time so George set about connecting the Church to its community. It was George Jeffreys who was instrumental in establishing the Seaman’s Chapel while he was the parish minister.

The Rev George Jeffreys did tremendous work at a critical time for Port Chalmers. Other clergy have also been concerned with the emotional and spiritual needs of sailors visiting Port Chalmers. This has also been extended to and the men and women who work at the Port, and to crew and passengers of cruise ships in moments of tragedy. 

Rev Belmer reopened the Sailor’s Rst (now known as the British Sailors Society. As an historian he also wrote a book about the society for its centenary. After leaving Port Chalmers, Belmer continued his work within the community with respect to the Sailors Society. He took to wearing  a naval cap, and was affectionately named Captain Pugwash after the TV character he physically resembled.

More recently Rev. Ian McIntosh also engaged in ministry with the Sailor’s Society and the port’s workers.  When he retired from the Port Chalmers parish, Ian was made an honorary member of the Waterfront Workers’ Union in recognition of not just his work with the union, but the community at large.

1 thought on “The Seamen’s Chapel”

  1. For many years a service has been held in Iona Church to remember and celebrate the merchant navy both in times of war and peace. The 2020 service is on Sunday 9 February at 10.00 am conducted by Rev John Sinclair. All are welcome to attend.


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