Tucked in Midtown with a facade of stained glass windows is a church founded for Swedish seamen that has a cozy secret: a hidden coffee shop. The Swedish Seamens Church is a descendant of the floating churches that once dotted the Manhattan waterfront, founded in the heyday of Swedish emigration to the United States. According to the history of the Swedish Seamens Church, 1.4 million Swedes came to the United States between 1820 and 1900. They would find solace while adventuring abroad by visiting these churches, getting news from home, collecting and sending mail, and getting a warm cup of coffee. Today, the church still serves this purpose but has an even broader mission: “The church abroad wants to be where Swedes live and work,” according to the Council of the Church of Sweden Abroad.
The current form of the building at 5 E. 48th Street is thanks to the largesse of Mrs. Henrietta E. Francis Talcott, the wife of James Talcott, a farmer turned self-made millionaire who made his fortune in the garment industry. He was a highly devout man, and upon his death at 86 in 1916, Henrietta donated $250,000 towards the construction of a building in his honor for the New York Bible Society. The building dates to 1873, one of several rowhouses on this street, but following Henriett’s donation, it was redesigned in a Gothic style by architect Wilfred E. Anthony and completed in 1921. It was awarded a silver medal in the “Best Building” category by the Fifth Avenue Association. In 1978, the Swedish Seamens Church purchased the building from the New York Bible Society for $570,000 and sold the air rights for a $1 million to pay off the debt on the purchase.
As soon as you enter the church, you will see the library, which is located in a double-height space that shows off the impressive stained glass windows. Wooden bookshelves line the walls and a staircase leads up to a mezzanine level balcony with metal railings that keeps the space feeling open. Modern light fixtures hang above round tables that are used for studying, meeting, and eating.
The cafe, which is an extension off the library, feels like a home kitchen. Swedish flags hang above the wooden island and cabinets, and homemade Swedish cinnamon buns sit enticingly below a glass cover. The prices are affordable — a packet of Swedish cookies was $3 and coffee was $2 with a refill allowed — and the staff is friendly. You can even get Swedish-brand food products that are hard to get in the states, including jams, cookies, candies, even peas.
On the second floor, don’t miss looking into the beautiful all-wood chapel, with the backdrop of three stained glass windows. High mass is still offered on Sundays where you can also hear the Swedish Walter Thür organ, which dates to 1986. The light-filled simplicity of the design of the Swedish Seamens Church lends to a welcoming, comforting experience.
If seamens churches are your thing now, you can also check out the Norwegian Seamens Church, located just nearby on 317 E. 52nd Street which also has its own coffee shop! Or for a further adventure, check out the Seamens Church Institute, now headquartered in Port Newark.