Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Pilgrims going to see Pope Francis during his two days in Philadelphia need not spend a bundle on accommodations if they don’t mind a little adventure. And what an adventure it would be to stay one or two nights aboard the Battleship New Jersey.
That’s right, up to 200 pilgrims a night will be able to sleep and eat aboard the 888-foot long New Jersey, the most decorated battleship. This floating museum on the Camden, N.J. side of the Delaware River that divides Jersey from Pennsylvania has a commanding view of the Philadelphia skyline on the opposite bank.
Weighing in at 58,000 tons, the New Jersey is 11 stories tall. Maybe the view from the admiral’s command chair could even get a glimpse of Center City Philadelphia, a short distance away.
It’s not the Queen Mary, of course. The bargain price of $75 a night includes sleeping in the same bunk quarters the crew once called home-away-from-home, plus breakfast and dinner served in the same “Chow Line” the enlisted sailors used.
The bunks are tiered with about 20 inches between them, but that only adds to the adventure and the ultimate fun of staying aboard a real battleship.
“We know we’ll have lots of adults, so we’ve upgraded the food a bit,” said Jack Willard, spokesman for this floating battleship museum. “Everything will be better. For example, dinner will likely be a rosemary chicken dish.”
Willard described the overnight encampment program that has been going on for 13 years on weekends as very popular with scouts, especially in the winter when camping outdoors is on hold.
“This is like camping but in a controlled atmosphere,” Willard said of their award-winning overnight program. Just remember, this is not a hotel. There is no elevator.
“We realize people may leave to go across into Philadelphia to see the pope,” Willard noted. Yet “we’re still going to run the program the way we do.” That means tours of the ships and other activities go on as usual for those who want to take part. Willard described the purpose of this overnight encampment program was to see what it feels like in the Navy while making it a fun and enjoyable experience.
Pope and WMF are Prime
Naturally, pilgrims will be most interested in what Pope Francis is doing and saying. Plus what’s going on at the World Meeting of Families. Plus visiting churches and shrines in Philadelphia like St. John the Evangelist Church, the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and the Miraculous Medal Shrine.
Getting to most places from the battleship is simply choosing one of three ways described by Willard.
First, guests can walk up the promenade on the waterfront, then walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge which will be closed to traffic that weekend. Second, they can opt for the Riverlink Ferry which is a mere 1/16th of a mile from the ship. Third, they can go to the station and take the train hop into Philadelphia.
Since the battleship will be run on the schedule it always does for the overnights, Willard said the management only asks that guests going to the papal and WMF events let them know when they’re going into Philadelphia and when they return to get back on board.
A History Lesson Too
At the same time, everyone who stays aboard the New Jersey will get a close-up bit of American history.
Built at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the battleship New Jersey was launched exactly one year after Pearl Harbor — on Dec. 7, 1942. A few months later she arrived in the Pacific and became the flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance who was commanding the Fifth Fleet. Later during the war she became the flagship for Admiral William Halsey as he commanded the fleet.
The New Jersey was commissioned for service for 48 years before it was finally decommissioned in 1991. It still is the most decorated battleship from U.S. fleet with 19 battle and campaign stars — among them nine World War II battle stars, four Korean War ones, two from Vietnam, and three campaign stars for serving off Beirut, Lebanon and service in the Persian Gulf. During that time it was upgraded and refitted several times.
Room Then and Now
The usual overnights on the New Jersey accommodate 350 people. But Willard noted that during the papal visit, “We are keeping the cap at 200 so we have more flexibility than we normally do.” This will make it easier on the guests and on the crew since not all guests will be staying for the usual program.
The elbow room the 200 guests will have is a far cry from the battleship’s early days. In the 1940s and 50s, the crew was just under 3,000 sailors. As computers became more prevalent in 1980s, the crew was pared to 1,600 sailors — still large by today’s standards. There are no more battleships of this size, Willard, said, because they take so many sailors to operate and they go through tons of fuel.
Nor do guests have to worry about any “noisy neighbors” upstairs in the massive turrets on deck. The mammoth nine 16-inch guns have been silent for years.
People going to Philadelphia for the papal visit can book their stay or get more information by calling (866) 877-6262 or (856) 966-1652, extension 203.
The only thing some callers who are thinking of staying on the ship hesitate over is the fact there are no showers for the stay. But 60 people per night are signed up thus far.
“It’s a unique way people coming into the region to see the pope can spend a night,” said Willard. “The food is much better, they will sleep in the same bunks the crew once slept in, get a fun feeling what its like to be in the navy, and have memories to take home with them.” Beginning with the visit of Pope Francis.