Our mission is to advance the kingdom of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ and to do missionary, relief and rescue work of all kinds.
In May 1905, Dr. Ezra Sieber and his wife began a small group for folks living in downtown Lancaster to gather together and talk about God’s redeeming story. They met in Ms. Sarah Kuhns’ row home on the southwest side of the city. During one of the Sunday evening meetings, Ms. Kuhns committed her life to Jesus Christ and began living a changed life.
In 1916, the small group grew and began meeting the needs of the homeless and hungry in Lancaster, with the opening of temporary shelter for families. Meals were 10¢ for those who could pay and free for those who couldn’t. This was also the decade when women were provided shelter at the Mission. In 1917, the state of Pennsylvania recognized Water Street Rescue Mission as an official organization. The charter was signed making the purpose of the Mission officially: To advance the Kingdom of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ by providing rescue and renewal service in the City and County of Lancaster, PA.
The roaring 20’s were a time of expansion for the Mission. While operating a Mission on Water St. a men’s dormitory was established on W. King Street in 1921. In 1926, the Lancaster Intelligencer Newspaper published an article profiling the positive impact of the Mission with this headline: “Lancaster’s Place to Go When There is No Other.” The U.S. stock market crashes in 1929 beginning the Great Depression.
Even more than in the first twenty years of service, this decade was marked by giving back to the City of Lancaster. The Mission began handing out baskets of food and other supplies to local families living in poverty in the city, and the first Christmas Dinner was served in 1937.
The Mission adopted the motto “No law but love, no creed but Christ” and was also referenced as “your church in overalls working among the down trodden, the poor, the lame, the halt and the blind.” In the 1945 Annual Report the Superintendent let readers know that the Mission, “strives to be a real neighbor to the fellow who is in need, regardless of color or creed, young or old, deserving or undeserving, lovely or unlovely—they are all our neighbors, regardless of the condition of social standing, and we should love them as ourselves.”
In 1953, the Mission purchased The Conestoga Cotton Mill at 210 South Prince Street. Plans began for renovating the mill into a full service shelter for the hungry and homeless where men, women and children could come for rescue and renewal.
By April 1962, the renovated cotton mill was dedicated as Water Street Rescue Mission. The campus housed a kitchen for the homeless to eat, shelter for sleep, a chapel to worship, and clothing distribution. By the end of the decade, the Mission had taken responsibility of Grace Chapel, a children’s ministry. This became Water Street’s first youth ministry.
During the 70’s the Mission letterhead held the tagline, “Preaching the Gospel, Feeding the Hungry, Sheltering the Homeless and Feeding the Needy.” In 1975 the mission celebrated 70 years of serving the homeless and the hungry in Lancaster County.
In 1981 the Mission provided shelter to a girl for the first time in decades. The vision had always been to open an Emergency Shelter for women, but even before this was ready a father arrived with his daughter and was given a room to stay in. By the mid 80’s the Women’s Shelter officially opened. This was the decade when the Mission opened the early learning center for Pre-K and Kindergarten children known as Wonder Club and in 1983 a new Thrift Store opened on the campus, which would later become known as the best thrift store in Lancaster county.
In 1993, the Mission opened a free medical clinic on campus, under the direction of Dr. Charles “Chip” Mershon, for people living in extreme poverty. The Learning and Career Center opened on campus with the goal to empower Mission residents with the skills necessary to become employed. In addition, Water Street merged its youth ministry, originated in the 50’s, with an existing youth outreach for inner city youth called Teen Haven.
In 2002 Water Street opened the Lydia Center in Wrightsville, PA to provide a recovery program for women. Then in May 2003, the Mission opened the city’s first dental clinic for low-income residents. By 2006 Kuhn’s Hall renovations were completed, which improved the quality of housing for the homeless. Renovations also expanded Medical, Dental, and Learning.
Much growth and change has taken place over the decades in order to provide spiritual, physical, and emotional support for the homeless. Yet, one thing remains the same: the hearts of men, women and children still yearn to experience a life filled with Christ’s redeeming love. Here at Water Street there is a continuous commitment to remain true to the beginning; to be “your church in overalls working among the down trodden and the poor… ”. Through the Gospel of Jesus Christ every man, woman and child living in poverty will feel rich and whole in God’s Kingdom. We continue that which history began.
We’re located in downtown Lancaster at 210 South Prince Street. To schedule a tour, please contact us today!
Throughout this season, we have encountered a number of challenges in operating our shelter safely. Thankfully we have been blessed to see no community spread among our guests. This is due not only to the work of our team, but also the ways that upgrades to our facilities came at just the right time.
For example, Providence Shelter, which opened in November 2019, provides additional spacing and a top-tier air filtration system. We have also been able to implement the same air filtration standards in our dining hall prior to the most recent wave of COVID.
Because a high percentage of our guests have preexisting health conditions, we have had to be diligent in our safety protocols, doing our best to ensure their safety. For us that has included implanting all CDC disinfecting, masking and social distancing from the very beginning. This has led to major changes in roles and responsibilities of staff. Staff have taken over disinfecting in shifts all over campus. They have also delivered much of our support services and programs through zoom, hosting counseling sessions and classes virtually and meeting in-person with plexi-glass dividers only when necessary.
For meals, we’ve changed preparation and delivery to help minimize interaction of guests who live in different facilities. At times that has meant delivering meals to certain Residential Floors so we can keep smaller groups in the dining hall. We have also had to restrict guests’ travel on and off campus to only essential trips such as going to work, the doctors, shopping etc., in order to minimize unnecessary exposure.
Another change in this season has been how we do intakes. Currently, the intake process requires new guests to be tested for COVID-19. They await their test results in a separate temporary shelter we have set up, before entering Providence Emergency Shelter.
All of these changes have been made while severely limiting the number of volunteers on campus. At one point, all volunteering was completely put on hold. Now, we are running with a third of our normal volunteers.
And it’s been tiring, for both staff and guests. We have had times where many staff were working remotely due to their own health risks. Other times where staff or guests have been quarantined due to exposures. But even with all of the schedule changes, increased overtime, and cross-shift working, our team has done an amazing job persevering through all of the challenges.
What to Expect This Winter Typically we have over 200 total guests on campus, over 100 in our Residential Programs over and 100 in our Emergency Shelters. Although our Residential capacity remains about the same, we have had to reduce the available beds in Providence Shelter to ensure safe spacing overnight from about 75 to 55.
Winter always presents its own challenges, so we anticipate this year will be no different. Women in our Providence Shelter have moved over to the shelter at St. Mary’s across the street, run by the Lancaster Food Hub. During their stay there they have full access to all of our services, including showers, food and staff support. Not only does having women shift to St. Mary’s enable us to free up additional beds for men, it will help us keep the shelter populations separate and limit the risk of spread.
Thank You We have been so encouraged by the support we have received this year. Without a community coming around us and our guests, we would not be able to keep our guests safe and continue to guide them in their restoration journeys. We truly couldn’t do what we do without you.