Photo by Mark Bowen
Sister Joy Manthey aboard the riverboat the Colonel.
It’s a perfect autumn day, and Sister Joy Manthey, C.S.J., is greeting passengers coming aboard the Colonel riverboat for a cruise during Tall Stacks, a four-day festival held in Cincinnati, Ohio, about every four years since 1988. This is the fifth festival, but only Sister Joy’s third Tall Stacks visit.
“How you doing? Ready for a boat ride? Where’s your group from?” she asks as the passengers file past.
In between greetings, she stops to sign autographs and pose for pictures. She’s been written up in the local paper and featured on the local news. After appearing at Tall Stacks in 1999, Sister Joy has become somewhat of a local celebrity. Why? Well, it’s not every day that the captain of your riverboat is also a nun and a chaplain to a congregation that stretches from Pittsburgh to Houston.
As we cruised on the Ohio River, Sister Joy talked with St. Anthony Messenger about her lifelong connection with the river and how it led to her current ministry.
The trip upriver from Galveston, Texas, to Tall Stacks took the crew of the Colonel 13 days. For Sister Joy, that time is like a personal retreat.
“What I enjoy is the peace and serenity,” she says. “On the bank, you’re running here and you’re running there. You don’t have time to stop and reflect. While I’m up here [in the pilothouse], I can reflect for hours at a time.”
She has her rosary, prayer books and the daily readings all within arm’s reach.
“I’m here for six hours and I can talk to God all I want. It’s very conducive to prayer. Usually you’re between cities so you see a lot of land and countryside. You see beautiful sunrises, beautiful sunsets, the glow of the moon. You’re up here surrounded by God’s beauty and it’s like, How can you not think there is a God?”
She recalls how one night as she was piloting the boat across the Gulf of Mexico the fog became so thick that she had to rely on the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) to guide the way. It reminded her of a paper she once wrote for a class on the image of God as a GPS.
“The Global Positioning Satellite can tell you exactly where you are wherever you are on earth. And it’s like God knows exactly where I am, what I’m doing, is watching over me, just like a GPS.”
Piloting, she says, “is definitely helpful to my spiritual life. It nourishes it, it strengthens it and it gives me the time for it.”
But to discover where Sister Joy’s connection with the river began, you have to go back to New Orleans when she was about 10 years old. While looking for something to do while her friends were away on vacation, Joy hopped on a bus and followed it to the end of the line. Little did she know that at the end of the line lay her destiny.
When she got off the bus, she found herself by the steamboat the President, where she met two young girls. They offered to get Joy on the boat for free if she cleaned the popcorn machine. She agreed, and the routine continued until Joy’s allowance ran out and she couldn’t afford bus fare back to the boat. When she returned the next Monday, the captain asked where she’d been. When she explained why she hadn’t been back, he promptly offered her 50 cents a day if she thanked him for the boat ride.
Before long, she was doing odd jobs on the President and other steamboats. She even got the chance to steer the Mark Twain while the captain ate lunch.
What she didn’t know, though, was that this love for the river was literally in her blood. When she told her dad what she had been doing, he revealed that the captain of the President was her cousin, as was one of the girls who first got her on the boat.
And her family’s history on the river didn’t stop there, either. Her great-great-grandfather, John Streckfus, built and operated the first excursion boat on the Mississippi in 1884. And her great-uncle Verne Streckfus hired Louis Armstrong to play trumpet on the Streckfus boats.
At 18, Sister Joy went on to earn a Coast Guard license, which allowed her to pilot passenger vessels up to 100 gross tons. Three years later, she became licensed to handle any vessel on the river.
She spent more than 20 years piloting various types of boats and barges. She even ran her own passenger-boat business for a number of years. Then came her second calling.
Sister Joy readily admits that her religious vocation did not come quite as easily as her love of the river. But still, she says she knew from a young age that she had a religious vocation. She just chose to ignore it.
“I fought it. I just kept saying, ‘God, you’re barking up the wrong tree. You just need to leave me alone and go elsewhere,’” she recalls.
That doesn’t mean she wasn’t actively living her faith throughout those years, though. Joy volunteered with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in the Baton Rouge area, and even served as chauffeur for Mother Teresa whenever she came to town. In fact, Mother Teresa asked her on a number of occasions whether she was considering religious life.
It wasn’t until one night in 1995 when she was piloting a casino boat, though, that she finally got the message. She noticed a tiny ad in the paper for a “Come and See” weekend for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. The rest, as they say, is history. She went on the weekend and “felt a great amount of peace with it.”
Given the circumstances, she says, “I don’t know if I chose the order. They might have chosen me.”
For Sister Joy it seemed like a perfect fit. The congregation’s founder, Jesuit Father Jean Pierre Medaille, had instructed the sisters to go out and do whatever type of ministry was needed. Sister Joy says she had been thinking of the need for pastoral care for those working on the river. She thought such a ministry could fit in well with the sisters and their founder’s wishes.
The trick, though, was figuring out how to institute such a ministry. Her trip to Tall Stacks in 1999 provided the answer.
On her way upriver, Sister Joy made a stop at the Paducah, Kentucky, office of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) of New York and New Jersey to check out a new simulator they had installed.
The Rev. Dr. Jean R. Smith, now executive director of the Institute, happened to be there. When Sister Joy told her that she was going to make final vows in January 2000, Dr. Smith asked about her plans for the future.
Sister Joy told her that she thought there was a need for a ministry with the people who work on the towboats because she had discovered that once they found out she was becoming a nun they immediately began opening up to her.
“It’s like I had a sign on my back that said, ‘Talk to me, I’m a nun,’” Sister Joy recalls telling Dr. Smith.
Dr. Smith told her that the Institute had hired two staff members for the Ministry on the River program, and was going to be looking for a third to serve as chaplain in the Gulf Coast region. She asked Sister Joy to give them a call after she made her vows.
So in January 2000, Sister Joy called the Rev. Smith a week before vows only to find out the Institute had just approved a new budget but no line item was included for the Gulf-based chaplain.
Dr. Smith told Sister Joy to give her 48 hours to see what she could do. Three days later Sister Joy got a call that she should go get a car, an office and a computer. They had found the funds.
These days, Sister Joy spends almost every day on the river in some capacity. “When I’m not a captain, I’m a chaplain,” she says. Some days she’ll hop on a barge and travel upriver and then catch another heading back down in order to spend time with the workers. She also fills in for other captains when necessary, and pilots boats such as the Colonel whenever she gets the opportunity.
For her it is the best of both worlds: She enjoys what she’s doing and she’s performing a much-needed ministry. And she says she owes it all to God.
“I enjoy ministering to [workers on the river]. I think God just chose me for it. I mean, I would never have been a woman who had a license if that wasn’t in the plan. God opened up the doors for me to get my first license, my second license and my third license.
“I wanted to towboat for 16 years. I could never get a towboat job because I was a woman. As soon as I said yes to God in September 1999, in October I got a call saying, ‘If you want to towboat, now is your chance to do it because we’re hurting for pilots so bad’....God is really taking care of me.”
She says her knowledge of the river industry that she acquired over the years is what helps her to be effective at what she’s doing. She also feels she’s helping to keep the workers safe. “They can work a lot safer after they’ve gotten a lot of this stuff off their chests,” she says.
But the same in-depth knowledge of the industry that benefits her so well can also make it challenging to get others involved in the ministry. Because of the specific language used in the river industry, it’s often difficult for people who don’t have a connection to become involved. Because of that, Sister Joy says she’s often alone in carrying out her ministry.
But those struggles are well worth it, given the positive impact the ministry has on the workers. One of the most rewarding things, according to Sister Joy, is talking to a guy who is really struggling with the job, and then meeting him again in six months and seeing how much happier he is.
She recalls one incident when she saw one of the crew members on the boat and could tell he had been crying. When she asked him what was wrong, he told her that his wife wanted him to come home and would call and complain to him. But he said he knew that he couldn’t make the same amount of money on shore and he really liked his job.
Sister Joy talked with the man’s wife, helped her locate some volunteer work so she could get out and interact with others, and told her that anytime she felt like calling her husband to complain, she should call Sister Joy instead. The wife still calls sometimes.
That is just one example of why Sister Joy always leaves a card with the Seamen’s Church Institute’s toll-free number on it for the workers on any boat she visits. “They know they can call me anytime for anything and, if I can help them out, I will,” she says.
Sister Joy says that, for the most part, “It’s a forgotten-about people who work out here on the river.” In fact, most of the workers don’t go to Mass even when they are on shore. They feel as if they get stared at because they haven’t been there the previous four weeks while they were working.
On top of that, she says, most people “have no idea of the importance of the river industry.” If it weren’t for the towboats moving grain up and down the river, she points out, a loaf of bread would be $6 or $7. And gasoline would be over $3 a gallon.
River transportation is also the most environmentally friendly method of transportation. “If 60 trucks equal one barge and you have 25 barges going down the river—that would be equal to 1,500 trucks—which would you rather have? Fifteen hundred trucks and their emissions or one towboat?” she asks.
That lack of knowledge and appreciation, Sister Joy says, is why her ministry is so important and why she continues to visit the rivers and their workers every day. “They’re my parish,” she says. “My parish extends from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Itaska, Minnesota, and from Cairo, Illinois, to Pittsburgh, and the intercoastal waterways from Brownsville, Texas, to Florida.”
That’s why every day Sister Joy gets up and heads to the river. For her, it’s the fulfillment of two lifelong loves—the river and God.