Ministry's sea change

Catholic aid group revises maritime strategy as ships' workers get to spend less time in port

February 04, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,sun reporter

The life of a seafarer has changed -- and a ministry that assists them is adapting to keep up.

After months at sea, some mariners would hang out for three or four days while ships unloaded goods at the port of Baltimore. But now, modern equipment moves cargo so fast that the vessels often are in and out of the dock in 24 to 48 hours before continuing on to Norfolk, Va., New Orleans or other ports of call.

That leaves ship workers with little time to contact relatives or stock up on toiletries and gifts -- if new security procedures permit them ashore at all.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about the Apostleship of the Sea gave the wrong location for the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center. It is near Fort McHenry in Locust Point.
The Sun regrets the errors.

With this in mind, the Apostleship of the Sea, a Roman Catholic mariners' ministry, scaled back its seafarers' center in the Dundalk Village shopping center and moved around the corner to a smaller storefront. The group got rid of a pool table and recreation equipment and brought in more telephones and computers with Internet access.

But just two weeks after moving in, a broken pipe flooded the space. Monsignor John L. FitzGerald, the group's director, intended to finish unpacking boxes last weekend, but he and other volunteers found themselves bailing water. The phone lines were down, computers wet, and furniture and literature waterlogged, including more than 50 Bibles. "Instead of putting all this stuff on the shelves, we threw it into the Dumpster," FitzGerald said.

The director said he and the 15 volunteers will still visit ships to counsel mariners and drive them ashore for errands in the group's vans. They plan to set up a temporary Stella Maris International Seafarers' Center until they repair the damaged site.

"Stella Maris" -- Latin for "star of the sea" -- is a title for Mary, the mother of Jesus, to whom early Christian mariners prayed for help navigating the oceans. Stella Maris is a co-patron saint of the ministry, along with Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose two sons were seamen.

Other groups also minister to mariners, such as the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center at Dundalk Marine Terminal.

FitzGerald works with James Horan, a Jesuit brother who has served as a port chaplain for more than a decade. When FitzGerald returned to Baltimore in 2003 after 30 years as a Navy chaplain, Cardinal William H. Keeler asked him to start a Baltimore chapter of the ministry. The international group is headquartered at the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People at the Vatican.

The archdiocese supports the ministry annually through its Lenten appeal. Other money comes through grants and donations from the maritime industry, unions and foundations, as well as individual donors.

Ship workers, predominantly men from countries such as the Philippines, Russia, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and the Maldives, sign eight- to 10-month contracts to be at sea, FitzGerald said. Time on board is lonely and can be dangerous.

The majority have visas that allow them to leave the ship, although new security regulations require them to use authorized vehicles -- they can't walk or ride bicycles. Plus, their time is limited because they work in shifts on the ship while in port.

The volunteers bring magazines, newspapers and union literature in languages that include Korean, Japanese, Ukrainian, Polish and Arabic. They sell international phone cards and bring cell phones on board for those who can't leave the ship.

"Connectivity with the loved ones is a big part of what we do here," FitzGerald said.

If sailors mention work problems, the volunteers can refer them to the ship's agent, the maritime union or maritime lawyers. The visitors also offer a fresh face to the mariners.

"We go aboard, and we're the only smiling face that these guys see," FitzGerald said.

"They see us coming, and they get these big grins on their faces," said Severna Park resident Jack Garvey, a former ship's engineer who has volunteered as a ship visitor for four years.

At the center, they have gathered used clothing for seamen from tropical climates shocked by colder weather, though much of it was discarded after the flood.

"It's amazing how grateful they are for anything we give them," said Clifford Jackson of Pasadena, who has volunteered since August.

FitzGerald said he can celebrate Mass in Latin, English, German, Spanish, French and Italian, and hear confessions for Catholics. The group helps people of all religions observe their faith by giving them religious articles that they might need.

"We're not out to make converts for our particular faith," FitzGerald said. "We're out to service those of our faith and to facilitate others with their faith obligations."

A brochure for the Apostleship of the Sea describes it as a "ministry of hospitality."

"Our religious faith tells us we should care for them," FitzGerald said.

Jackson said he and other ship visitors can reach only a small number of the hundreds of ships that dock at the port each month.

On Wednesday, he and FitzGerald dropped off magazines at the Pax Phoenix, a bulk carrier unloading materials such as manganese ore and pig iron at Rukert Terminals at Clinton Street.

Jackson had visited the night before to sell phone cards and give some of the 22 Filipino crew members rides to stores, including Wal-Mart and Victoria's Secret.

FitzGerald moved through the ship, greeting everyone he met. He asked them where they lived in the Philippines, which he has visited as a Navy chaplain. The priest told them of his love for lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) and pancit (a noodle dish), but not balut (boiled fertilized duck eggs). He admired the neon green rosary one crewman wore around his neck.

The ship's captain, Francisco Lobaton Jr., said it was the crew's first trip to Baltimore but that they knew of the organization's work from other locations.

"For the caring and the welfare of the seamen, nobody beats Stella Maris," Lobaton said.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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