By Lauren Anderson-Cripps
Suspended above the gospel-side aisle in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a recently-completed model ship pointing due liturgical east, a bright red signpost inviting parishioners to follow its trajectory to the high altar and blessed sacrament.
What would be an unusual adornment in most North American churches is in fact the continuation of a tradition at the parish dating back more than 100 years. Former acolytes who went on to serve in the First World War brought back with them the European custom of sailors donating votive ships to coastal churches. Such an offering commonly sought God’s protection for a trip, or gave thanks for having returned safely from a difficult voyage.
The parish has received as many as a dozen votive ships from veterans and their families after their safe return from the war. In 1978, all but one of the ships was cut down and stolen from the church. The sole remaining ship — a gift from three mothers of three sons who survived the torpedoing of the USS President Lincoln in 1918 — was damaged during the heist. The church ultimately restored the ship to its northwest corner a decade ago.
The newest ship was installed in late 2021 to commemorate another generation-shaping event. Feeling a similar sense of gratitude for God’s merciful protection during the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Paul’s rector, Dean William Ogburn, saw it as an occasion to retrieve the parish’s long-held tradition.
In more recent history, St. Paul’s has installed plaques to commemorate tragedies, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The global pandemic called for something different, Ogburn said. Though no St. Paul’s parishioners were lost to the virus, the devastation of COVID-19 was visceral for the Brooklyn church. It is located across the street from a funeral home that hosted mobile morgues during the height of the health crisis.
“It was such an extraordinary event, unlike anything any of us had ever experienced before, and it was such a universal experience. It’s affected millions and millions of people around the world, and to ignore that felt wrong somehow,” Ogburn said. “This was something that would be in keeping with a long-term tradition that’s been happening for over 100 years at St. Paul’s, and … my hope was that it would give us something as a reminder, a way of not forgetting, something that would be in keeping with St. Paul’s history but that would also be something new for us to cherish as well.”
In April 2021, Ogburn commissioned parishioner and carpenter Mike Miller to build the model ship. When Ogburn approached him with the opportunity, Miller — who has a workshop set up under St. Paul’s rectory — agreed to the project but worried about how he was going to pull it off.
“Inside, I was going ‘Oh dear, this is going to be a challenge,’” Miller said.
The last time Miller had tried his hand at making models, he was a teenager.
“That was my only experience of doing anything like that,” he said. “And I made models of mostly airplanes; I never made a boat.”
A fellow parishioner recommended the votive ship be modeled after the Endurance, a ship that set sail in 1914 for Antarctica under the leadership of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who set out to be the first man to cross the continent on foot.
The ship ultimately became trapped in ice and sank, but Shackleton and the entire 27-person crew managed to survive and ultimately reach safety. The details of that treacherous journey are well-documented, but specifications on the vessel were scant when Miller set out to craft a replica.
“Information about the ship was pretty limited; there were pictures of it sinking or it being stuck in the ice on its side, but there was very little to go on,” Miller said. “I managed to unearth some original plans for it, all of which were different, so it was hard to tell how it actually ended up looking.”
Without a model to follow at the time, Miller made educated guesses, creating a cardboard skeleton, followed by a balsa-wood frame, and finishing details such as billowing sails, rigging cords, and a tiny dog and cat on the deck.
“Every day it seemed to be like ‘How am I going to do this?’ But it was fun,” Miller said. “Historically it was really interesting — the tradition of it. The thought of having a new one was kind of mind-blowing. And a friend of mine said, ‘Do you realize what you’ve made could be in that church for the next 100 years?’ I thought, ‘Oh wow, well, let’s hope I make it well enough that it doesn’t disintegrate.’”
After leaving it on view in a glass case at eye level for a couple of months for parishioners to enjoy, Miller hung the ship from the ceiling of the nave. Harnessed and perched on scaffolding, Miller used a fishing pole to attach the wire to a hook on the ceiling that remained from one of St. Paul’s original votive ships.
“That was a bit tense,” Miller said. “Once she was there and pointing in the right direction, the scaffold was taken away. It was quite something, quite something.”
As the votive ship was being built, a recovery expedition was fortuitously underway to find the remains of the original Endurance. Researchers ultimately discovered the wreckage in the Weddell Sea in March 2022, 100 years after the vessel wrecked, 10 years after the search mission commenced, and just six months after St. Paul’s votive ship was completed.
“All of the stuff that we did with this was completely unrelated, and then that happened, and it was just amazing,” Ogburn said.
“I knew when I was building it that there was about to be an expedition,” Miller said, “but it wasn’t until I finished it that they actually found her, at which point I said, ‘I hope that what I’ve made resembles what’s down there.’”
The discovery unearthed more unexpected connections.
Just days ahead of Ogburn’s institution as rector — delayed by nearly two years because of the pandemic — a woman walked into the church looking for the votive ship. The woman introduced herself as Joanna Yellowlees Bound, the wife of marine archaeologist Mensun Bound, who led the search for the Endurance. She had read about St. Paul’s votive ship and came to see it while Mensun was delivering a lecture in New York City.
She returned with Mensun to attend Ogburn’s institution that weekend.
Miller, who has family in the Falkland Islands, learned after the service that Mensun Bound, a native of the archipelago, is friends with Miller’s cousin. Miller hasn’t seen his relative in more than 50 years.
Miller’s cousin “was in his early 20s when he left England,” said Miller, a native of England. “He graduated from university with a law degree, joined a law firm and hated it, and thought What do I do now? And so, he went as far away as he could go and went to the Falkland Islands to be a sheep farmer.”
“It’s just uncanny,” Ogburn said of the connection.
Miller expresses mixed feelings on whether he would like to see a revival of votive ships at St. Paul’s.
“I think it’s possible that there could well be opportunities in the future for other boats to be built, but it really is dependent on some sort of disaster, which we don’t want. But I would love to see more ships hanging there.”
The experience of building St. Paul’s first votive ship in a century, Miller said, was “quite thrilling.”
All of the connections that rose to the surface throughout the project felt like confirmation that it was supposed to happen, Ogburn said.
“It feels like the work of the angels,” he said. “It’s like facilitating something that was supposed to happen without knowing any of it at the time.”
In the church, the fourth Station of the Cross is located near the votive ship. During Lent, it took on another layer of rich meaning.
“What shall I testify unto thee? What shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I compare to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion?” the station’s citation from Lamentations reads. “For thy ruin is deep as the sea: who can heal thee? Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. The Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.”