The notice is as clear as it gets: "The Boston Seaman's Friend Society is leaving Martha's Vineyard." On Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, a representative from the Seafarer's Friend will outline a plan to leave after 114 years of serving the Island.
A number of Islanders are not happy about the departure for it means a lot more than the end of a tradition. It involves money, lots of money. It is about an endowment fund worth over a million dollars, the use of which has been in dispute for years. Some Islanders think the money should remain here. Others believe that the fund was intended for seafarers elsewhere.
"The purpose of the meeting is to report that our society is leaving the Island," said Edward O. (Ted) Coates, executive director for the Seafarer's Friend. "Our board has voted that our mission is elsewhere. That vote was taken last May 1."
The society's mission is to offer ministry to seafarers. "They are people from all over the world," Mr. Coates said. They are people who work on ships at sea. And these ships don't come to the Vineyard anymore. Seafarer's Friend has a strong presence in Chelsea, in Boston Harbor, in Portsmouth and Portland. There are four full-time staff, three part timers and volunteer crews of 20 to 40. They board ships, many of them foreign merchant ships and some foreign cruise ships.
The history of the society on the Vineyard is rich with lore and stories. Many Vineyarders remember the Seamen's Bethel located where the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority office now stands. There was a chapel next door, and for most of the last century the house was occupied. There was a museum of interesting artifacts. A ministry was operated. Much has been written about that ministry and its ties to the history of the town.
The Bethel building was moved in 1995 next door to the Tisbury elementary school. It is now the home of the American Legion Hall Post 257. The chapel was moved to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital in April of 1992. The museum collection was moved to where the Sail Martha's Vineyard office now resides on Main street in Vineyard Haven.
In the days before the building of the Cape Cod Canal, Vineyard Sound and the waters of Vineyard Haven harbor were the busiest shipping lane in the world, second only to the English Channel. Any ship bound from New York to Boston traveled past West and East Chop and many of the hundreds of vessels that passed by came in to spend a night or two in Vineyard Haven.
The Harriet Norris Goldberg Endowment and the Mary Marsh Trust were created in the 1930s to help the Seamen's Friends continue that mission and for a time monies from that fund were spent on the Island. In the last 20 years it was used to offer student scholarships, fund work on an ancient burial ground for merchant sailors who had died on the Island and to help local fishermen and others pursue captain licenses. There were many other benevolent services offered, too.
Through the years a number of Islanders have spoken up about the use and misuse of the fund. Mr. Coates said the fund should be spent to help further the mission of helping seafarers of today.
The seafarers the mission helps now are certainly different than those of the early part of the 1900s, and the society has adapted to fill their needs. Today, they are foreigners working for very little, seeking ways to stay connected to their families. "What we do is not religious," Mr. Coates said. "We provide spiritual help when asked. Mostly, we provide them with clothing. We take them books, magazines and offer phone cards. The phone cards are most important. That is their link to home. We sell them - there is no mark up in price.
"This year we will visit 1,300 ships. We have already visited 1,200 ships. Each ship has a crew of 25 to 30," Mr. Coates said.
There are a number of people on the Vineyard who think the society should not leave with the Goldberg trust.
Doug Siple, 61, of Oak Bluffs, co-owns with his wife Marlene's Taxi. When he is not on the Vineyard, he is a master of an ocean-going tug for Moran Towing and Transportation out of New York harbor. Mr. Siple won't be able to attend Wednesday night's meeting because he will be on a tugboat. But he is among the Island's most spirited critics of the society and he has been talking up an effort by Islanders to keep the fund here. He doesn't mind the society leaving, he just doesn't want to see them take the Goldberg fund along. This week he said there is plenty that the society fund can do to help Island fishermen, merchant sailors and their families.
Shawn Ahearn is a former employee of the Seafarer's Friend. For a long time, beginning in 1994, he was a part-time branch manager for the Friends. He operated an office in Vineyard Haven where today Sail Martha's Vineyard operates out of the Nathan Mayhew School, owned by the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust. From 1994 to 2000, Mr. Ahearn received about $12,000 a year to run the office and teach skills like launch tendering to sailors. A total of 234 sailors went through his program.
Mr. Ahearn is moving his operation to Maine because of the high cost of offering the classes on the Vineyard. Mr. Ahearn said he knew the Friends were leaving the Island well before this announcement. "They have told us, in our Island committee, that after the sale of their building at 45 Church Street in Boston they had two to three years of financial solvency. We believe that they have redefined their mission statement not to spend on the Vineyard. Unfortunately, it was never written down. It was only verbally expressed," Mr. Ahearn said.
Mr. Ahearn has concerns about the breaking up of the Bethel collection. The Titanic lifejacket, which has been on the Vineyard for many years, was removed and taken.
Mr. Coates said records show that the lifejacket never had any historical connection with the Vineyard.
Mr. Siple said: "Everywhere there was a seamen's society and an endowment, they diminished. New York, Bristol, Newport and now the Vineyard. Their salaries have kept going up."
Mr. Coates, a retired Coast Guard regulatory officer who has been director of the Friends for three years, claims his organization isn't diminished or in trouble. In their 2002 annual budget, Mr. Coates said they had a total expense of $477,149. "Of that amount $50,000 was directly spent on Martha's Vineyard."
On Sept. 30, this year, the Goldberg fund was valued at $1,386,893.89.
Mr. Coates said the income from the Goldberg and Marsh funds was $56,916.
Total income for the Friends is $352,000 and most of it came from maritime trusts and maritime organizations. If there is any fault, Mr. Coates said, "Our organization didn't respond to the changes in the maritime industry. We ran a rooming house when it was losing money. Ships don't spend a lot of time at the dock. The turnaround time is fast. The sailors are lucky if they have a few hours ashore. We can't wait for people to come to us, we have to go out on the ships. We sold the rooming house two years ago. We've gone from 10,000 square feet down to 1,700 square feet.
"We are always in economic hardship, but that doesn't mean we are stealing from the Goldberg Fund," Mr. Coates said.
There has been litigation over the uses of the Goldberg Fund for many years.
In December of 1978, State Supreme Court justice Augustus Wagner ruled in favor of the Vineyard to force the society to continue to spend money on the Vineyard for Island seafarers.
In 1993, the state attorney general cleared the society of improprieties in the use of the Goldberg fund.
Mr. Coates said: "I want to preserve the legacy down there but I must say it gets a little wearing. I have listened to people for three years. The money belongs to seafarers. If we can't work something out we'll go to the judge."
Mr. Coates has had talks with the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society and the American Legion. There is talk of giving the museum collection to the historical society, which would in turn house it in the old Bethel building. "The Museum collection doesn't belong to the Vineyard. It belongs to the Society. We are thinking of it as a gift to the Island," Mr. Coates said.
There is also the question of the old maritime cemetery off Canterbury Lane in Vineyard Haven. "We paid for the graveyard, it would be a gift to the Island," Mr. Coates said.
Mr. Coates said they have also talked with the Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha's Vineyard.
But there are no plans to relinquish any part of the Goldberg Fund. "Geography isn't the issue, it is mission. The Islanders aren't going to get the money. It is for seafarers. It is going to what the Wagner decision says," he said.