Naomi Despeaux, 88, volunteered at Port Mission in city

March 11, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Naomi Marie Despeaux, a homemaker whose voluntarism with the Port Mission in Fells Point spanned more than 70 years, died of Alzheimer's disease Sunday at Genesis Eldercare in Severna Park. The longtime Northeast Baltimore resident was 88.

Born and raised Naomi Marie Heselbach on Chester Street in Highlandtown, she graduated from Girls' Vocational School, which later became a part of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.

As a youngster, Mrs. Despeaux spent time at the Port Mission, where her parents volunteered, and after reaching adulthood, she joined them as a full-fledged volunteer.

Established in 1881, the nondenominational mission that was supported by voluntary contributions and was guided by its motto -- "Lighthouse in a Dimming World" -- ceased operation in 2000.

During an era when visiting seamen commonly found accommodations in rooming houses attached to saloons, brothels and gambling establishments, the mission offered an alternative, with clean bedrooms, dining and reading rooms. Religious services were also conducted in five languages.

"This would be a home away from home -- a social and recreational center where seamen would find safe refuge while in port," wrote Karin E. Martin, her niece, in an unpublished history of the mission.

The mission, which operated 24 hours a day, settled into two buildings at 813 S. Broadway. For a number of years, it also operated the Anchorage, which housed 165 additional seamen and is now the Admiral Fell Inn.

In 1938, she married Milton P. Despeaux, a mail carrier whom she met at the mission. The couple continued volunteering together until his death in 1986.

As ships and their crews spent less and less time in Baltimore, the role of the mission changed as it reached out to needy adults and children in the surrounding neighborhood.

"The church and the Bible were her entire life," said Mrs. Martin, who described her aunt as "always ready to help anybody; she wanted to help other folks."

Mrs. Despeaux, who didn't drive and traveled from her Nicholas Avenue home where she had lived for more than 50 years by bus, proved to be a ubiquitous presence at the mission.

She spent part of each day, seven days a week, at the mission working on its operating board or in its various programs such as the Boys and Girls Night Programs, the Willing Workers Program and the Mothers Meetings. On Sunday evenings, after the conclusion of a gospel service, she helped serve dinner to the homeless.

She also participated in what the mission called its Outdoor Work.

"From the 1960s through the 1990s, she and other members of the Port Mission went into the Fells Point neighborhood, toting a small organ, and teaching Bible verses and songs to children in street gatherings," Mrs. Martin said.

Margaret E. Matey of Rosedale, who volunteered at the mission for more than 60 years, recalled her welcoming and warm presence.

"She was an outgoing and caring person who was always ready to welcome the strangers who came in," Mrs. Matey said.

Darlas L. Riley of York, Pa., also a former volunteer, recalled her working with young women.

"She was an excellent seamstress and taught them how to sew as well as domestic science," she said.

"She was an extremely caring, sweet and patient person. She had no children of her own but adopted and treated as her own those who came to the mission. She was a terrific mentor."

Mrs. Despeaux was also a longtime member of Parkside United Methodist Church, where she helped prepare and cook Lenten codfish and oyster suppers.

She enjoyed needlepoint work and cooking.

Services will be held at noon today at Leonard J. Ruck Funeral Home, 5305 Harford Road.

In addition to her niece, she is survived by two nephews, Brian Heselbach of Perry Hall and Wayne Heselbach of Baltimore.

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