Meet Øyvind Kvarstein

New York’s new Norwegian Seamen’s Church pastor is still serving the sailors

 Øyvind Kvarstein

Photo: Øyvind Kvarstein / Facebook
Øyvind Karstein wants to integrate the Seamen’s Church into the life of New York’s Norwegians.

Lagertha Aslaug
Brooklyn, N.Y.

On May 5, 2016, the new pastor of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in New York, Øyvind Kvarstein, drove the church’s van to Brooklyn and picked up Norwegian Krigsseiler Karl Aksel Andresen; Elsie Willumsen, whose husband was a founder of the Norwegian Krigsseiler Club in Brooklyn; and three non-vets.

Kvarstein had only taken over his position a few weeks before. He received a message from Victoria Hofmo, President of the Scandinavian East Coast Museum, asking if he would officiate at a ceremony at “The Stone” (the Norwegian War Sailors Monument) in Battery Park. He quickly said yes. And a few days later, when she asked him on behalf of Aksel if he could pick up the gang in Brooklyn with the church van, he also said yes—without hesitation. Each year, the Scandinavian East Coast Museum hosts a ceremony at the memorial as close as possible to Norway’s liberation date, which is May 8.

Today, the New York side of the harbor is barely used for shipping. The docks have often been replaced with overpriced bland housing. And of course, the church’s function has also changed. So it was so nice that one of the pastor’s first activities was tied to the church’s roots.

At the ceremony, Pastor Kvarstein chose a version of the 23rd Psalm entitled “The Lord is My Pilot.” It was perfect. Also attending was the wonderful Elin Bergithe Rognlie, the Norwegian General Consul, who spoke about the bravery of these men.

The funniest touch was when they all sang the Norwegian national anthem, “Ja, vi elsker,” accompanied by a street musician from Trinidad, who was playing a pan drum. He just happened to be performing at the Battery that day. Afterwards, most of the group headed a stone throw’s away towards the Pier House A to break bread. All wanted to converse with the pastor.

I had a chance to speak with Pastor Kvarstein about his plans and hopes for the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in New York.

Victoria Hofmo: What was it like being with the Norwegian War Sailors at The Stone?

Øyvind Kvarstein: It was meaningful and quite a learning experience. I did not know that we still had Norwegian Krigsseilere/WWII veterans living in New York.

As the stones [that comprise the monument] had been formed by nature, we as human beings are formed by history. That is why it is important to keep telling the stories of common past.

VH: This is your second time working at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in N.Y. What was your prior position?

ØK: From 1996-2000, I was the pastor for Norwegian students in the USA and Canada. I visited students in all 50 states, including six provinces in Canada.

VH: How does it feel to be back in N.Y.?

ØK: It is really satisfying to be back and good to meet with a lot of nice people I knew then. And this time I am here with my wife, Torunn Sneltvedt. That makes a huge difference.

VH: How has the church changed?

ØK: Frankly, the church has not changed that much. The smell is the same, so are the cupboards in our kitchen. The work is pretty much the same. The main difference is the focus on music and art and that we spend more of our working hours on the premises of the church. There are no more visits to ships in Port Elizabeth or Bayonne.

VH: How has N.Y. changed?

ØK: NYC feels the same as 20 years ago. I hardly see any rollerbladers anymore. We used to zigzag through the streets on rollerblades, including circling the entire island of Manhattan. From the church roof we used to be able to see the Lipstick Building.

VH: What do you hope to bring to the church?

ØK: I hope to bring the best from the past and contribute in pointing it in the right path for the future. Next year the church building on E 52nd Street is 25 years old.

VH: What is your vision for the church?

ØK: That the church may be an integrated part of the lives of Norwegians living in and around NYC, as well for those visiting the city. In other words: that the church is included in the category of “Added Values.”

This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.