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Apostleship of the Sea
Ministry to Seafarers

[Feature 1 Photo]

Photo of ocean by
Ron Seymour.

Photo of sculpture by
Jan Carter.

Sculpture by
Jeffrey and
Anna Koh-Varilla

“Stella Maris, Star of the Sea,” is a popular image for seafarers. This photo montage includes a sculpture titled “Our Lady of Welcome,” by Chicago artists Jeffrey and Anna Koh-Varilla.

As ships and their crews move from one diocese to another, Catholic port chaplains around the world do their best to minister to people of the sea. Pope John Paul II’s new apostolic letter encourages them in their maritime ministry. By Mary Jo Dangel

 A Moving Ministry

 Advocate for People

 Geography Lessons

Fishers of All

Not Just ‘Sittin’

Concern for People

BEING AFRAID OF WATER and heights didn’t stop Karen Lai from becoming involved in Apostleship of the Sea (AOS), an international Catholic organization that ministers to people in the maritime industry. “Ohhh. Some of those gangways,” moans the 38-year-old who became a lay minister in Detroit, Michigan, in 1985. “You have to take a running jump to get to the bottom of one that’s over the water and about three feet away from the dock. Sometimes I’ll get three fourths of the way up the gangway and then my knees begin to turn to jelly, and I have to stop and pray, ‘O.K., Lord, I’m almost there. It’s your work—gotta push me.’ I’m still afraid of water.”

In 1990 Karen became the first layperson in the United States to be certified as a port chaplain by the Houston International Port Chaplaincy School. She is the first layperson elected by her peers as president of the National Catholic Conference for Seafarers. Other chaplains compared her to Mother Teresa during this interview at the AOS North American Regional Conference, held in September 1996 in Baltimore, Maryland.

AOS chaplains bring Christ to all seafarers, without regard to their religious affiliation. When chaplains board ships, they pray with seafarers and try to resolve problems. (Port chaplains do not normally minister to passengers on cruise ships, which often have chaplains on board for that purpose.) Seafarers are invited to nearby centers, which typically offer phones to call home, recreational opportunities, food and chapels. (Mass is often celebrated in these chapels and on ships.) In the United States over 50 centers are located at or near ports along the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf Coast and Great Lakes.

Many of the vessels docked at U.S. ports are “flags of convenience,” ships registered in countries with few or no regulations. Many of these ships are owned by Americans and operate out of U.S. ports, but the vessels are not subject to U.S. taxes.

Not all foreign-registered ships have bad reputations. But some ships are notorious for exploiting seafarers from developing countries through long hours, poor salaries (often withheld), deplorable working conditions, lack of medical care and other abuses. There are stories of seafarers who purposely were not informed that family members had died until the end of their contract because, if they had returned home earlier, it would have been costly to fill their positions.

Why do so many seafarers work under such oppressive conditions? For many of them, work at sea is still better than anything else available in the countries where they live.

Port chaplains stress the need for people of the land to understand our everyday connections to people of the sea. Many of the products we buy and sell are transported on the high seas. And when we book a cruise, we often look for the best prices without realizing that passengers on a cruise ship are subject to the laws of the country under which a ship is registered. (It’s not always easy to determine the registry, which is often listed in small print at the bottom of ads for cruises.) Some of these countries are politically unstable places where tourists would feel unsafe.

A Moving Ministry

AOS chaplains encounter a variety of problems. Karen Lai describes one incident in Catholic Maritime News, an AOS publication: A seaman was being refused medical treatment, hadn’t been paid for several months and was under constant verbal abuse. When Karen arrived at the ship as an advocate for the seaman, she was immediately recognized as a Catholic chaplain by her identification badge, which includes her name and the AOS Apostolatus Maris logo that is known at ports all over the world. She had to pull herself “up to the bottom step of the gangway that was hanging across the water” because the officers refused to lower the partially raised gangway.

When she approached the captain, Karen says, “I was dripping wet because the top deck was draining buckets of water over the gangway. I was cold...and not real happy.” Karen used the publicspeaking skills she developed in college and won her case. The seafarer went home “with his proper pay and his dignity.” When Karen left the ship, some of the officers watched her jump to the dock—they still hadn’t lowered the gangway. Although this incident had a happy ending, Karen says the most difficult part of this ministry is when you know “there is absolutely nothing you can do. It just rips your heart out.”

Karen began volunteering for Apostleship of the Sea in 1985 because of a notice she read in her Detroit church bulletin. At that time her three children were preschoolers and she “kept thinking that there’s got to be something more than just going to church on Sundays.” Her volunteer job evolved into a paid position as port chaplain ministering to seafarers working on the Great Lakes. (Not all AOS chaplains and staff are paid—many work on a volunteer basis.)

But shipping reductions on the Great Lakes led to the elimination of Karen’s position. She had either to find a new career in Detroit or to move her family to a location where there was an opening for a port chaplain. Her husband, Steve, said he could find a position in a restaurant in any city. He urged his wife to use her “specialized skills” in Galveston, where AOS had a vacancy for a position paid by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. The family moved to Galveston in 1992 so Karen could continue her ministry. “God had it all worked out,” says Father Rivers Patout, director of maritime ministry in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston.

Karen says her family has been very supportive. This proud mom justifiably brags about her teens pitching in on household chores during an emergency that turned her day off into a 15-hour ordeal aboard a ship where the crew finally went on strike. Her kids also entertain seafarers and have become “like proxy children” to people they’ve met from all over the world.

“My favorite place to be, other than with my family at home, is aboard a ship interacting with the crew, ” she says. “My second favorite part of the job is the correspondence I have with the seafarers.” She’s been writing to some people for 10 years. Many are people she’s met only once. Through these letters, she’s been with these families through deaths and happy events. She’s godmother of two of their children and plans to visit families of some pen pals when she goes to the Philippines in October 1997 for AOS’s 20th world congress. Karen was the only woman invited to address the 19th world congress in 1992.

The number-one concern of seafarers is their families. They can’t wait to call home when they arrive in a port.

Language has not been a barrier to this articulate woman who says she only speaks “American.” (“I can’t even call it English,” she laughs.) When a seaman from El Salvador began sobbing in a telephone booth, Karen found out through a translator that the man’s wife had died. At the last port he had discovered that she was ill but he was unable to receive permission to return home. Karen went alone with this widower to the chapel: “I prayed in English, but he understood and was telling me in Spanish all about his wife. And I understood....He knew that I understood his pain.”

But the “miracle” that stands out in her mind involves a Russian crew that returned to the Galveston port on a regular basis. Some of the seamen began asking Karen about God and Jesus.

One day two of the Russians asked if they could accompany the Lai family to church for Sunday Mass. The seamen’s experience at Mass was like that of aliens from another planet. Karen says the Russians watched everything—the people praying the rosary and receiving Communion, the servers, the priest. After Mass, the seamen asked about the stained-glass windows, the statues of the saints, the tabernacle. “They were in wonder regarding how so many people came to worship this God they never knew.”

At a later date, Karen went to Russia and stayed in a two-room flat with the family of one of these seamen. “On a wall in a glass case was the front of the bulletin from our church from Easter Sunday, with the risen Christ on the cover,” she recalls. When Karen returned home, she reported this incident to her parish so the people would realize how much their worshiping community had touched not only a visitor from a foreign land but also his whole family.

Karen says she’s blessed to have a trusting and supportive husband like Steve as her partner: “How many husbands would let their wives go on ships where there are men who haven’t seen a woman in months?” She also has a great deal of confidence and self-respect, qualities she believes are a must for women chaplains.

Another must is appropriate attire. “We have to dress and act properly or we’ve set ourselves up,” says Karen about women in this ministry. She wears a plain shirt with a crucifix that’s very visible, her AOS identification badge, casual slacks and athletic shoes. “Before women started boarding ships as chaplains, the only women these guys saw coming up the gangway were prostitutes.” (Prostitutes still board ships.) Karen and other women chaplains at the conference say they’ve never experienced sexual harassment on the job.

Advocate for People of the Sea

Women chaplains aren’t the only ones who have to dress sensibly. Deacon Dale Wamstad laughs recalling how he wore his Franciscan robe the first few times he went aboard ships in Jacksonville, Florida, where he’s been a port chaplain since 1986. It soon became apparent that the robe wouldn’t work—it swung and got caught when he went up and down ladders.

Deacon Dale, 60, is the only Franciscan port chaplain in the United States. The Diocese of Jacksonville pays his salary and furnishes the van he uses, which has the AOS logo painted on the side. (Funding varies in each diocese.)


(Left to right) Deacon Robert Balderas, Father River Patout and Sister Pamela VanGiessen visit the dock between classes at Houston’s Port Chaplaincy School in February.

Like many Catholic port chaplains, Dale works at an ecumenical center—a Baptist chaplain manages Jacksonville’s Baptist Seafarers’ Center. Dale’s responsibilities include ship visits and transporting seafarers to the “center, shopping, whatever they need to do.” AOS chaplains report that seafarers often shop at resale shops and discount stores. One group bought used bikes they rode back to the ship and could continue using at other ports.

The number-one concern of seafarers, says Dale, is their families. They can’t wait to call home when they arrive in a port.

Modern seafarers don’t bear much resemblance to the characters found in Moby Dick and Treasure Island, although piracy still exists on the high seas. Many seamen today are married and devoted to their families. Able-bodied (AB) women also work on ships—in the kitchen, on deck and as officers. (AB’s are qualified to perform various duties at sea.)

Most of the seafarers Dale Wamstad meets are from foreign countries and work on commercial ships. When Dale boards a ship, he tells the crew, “I’m here to do whatever I can for you.” If he encounters a problem, he often attempts to resolve it by calling an attorney or the International Transport Workers’ Federation. (There are international laws, but they aren ’t easy to enforce when ships keep moving and many abuses are unreported.) Dale can call the U.S. Coast Guard if there’s a health problem such as bad water or food, or if the vessel is not seaworthy. “We make a very little dent in bringing about a just situation but once in a while we catch them.”

It’s no surprise that this convert to Catholicism is an advocate. Raised a Lutheran, Dale became interested in social-justice issues in college. While working with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, Dale was influenced by a Franciscan brother he met. “Franciscans fit my image of an alternative life-style,” he explains.

Geography Lessons on the Refrigerator

According to some chaplains, the highlight of the conference was the moving testimonies given by wives of two Nova Scotia seafarers who talked about the need to support seafarers’ families. Maggie Whittingham-Lamont, who was born in England, recalled the loneliness and struggle of raising a family with her husband gone much of the time. And Edna Vieau stressed the need she had for ongoing support that wasn’t there when her husband died at sea from a heart attack. Her oldest son also was a seaman who drowned when there was a fire aboard ship and he was forced to use a lifeboat with holes in it.

Later, during a break at the conference, their plight is reiterated by Sue Romero, a seaman’s spouse who has been coordinating volunteers at the port of Detroit since 1988. (Many individuals and groups provide volunteer services to assist AOS.) Sue pours out her story like a volcano that’s overdue to explode. Her husband, Tom, is an AB on the Great Lakes whose average tour of duty lasts about a month. Tom, a native of the Philippines who is trying to become a U.S. citizen, was a seafarer when Sue met him. After they were married he tried working on land but he wasn’t happy.

Tom and Sue have two young daughters who keep track of where their daddy is working each day by using a map of the Great Lakes that Sue hangs on the refrigerator. She made a small needlepoint magnet of a house to show where they live and another of a freighter that moves to show where Tom works. If he’s docking a few hours away, Sue and the girls often drive there to spend a few hours with him.

This mom tries to help her preschoolers adjust to their father not being home at Christmas and other special occasions, and to tuck them in at night. “Before they go to bed I say, ‘There’s the moon,’” explains Sue. “We blow a kiss to the moon and the moon blows a kiss to Daddy for us. That sticks with them.” Sue doesn’t want Tom to get in the habit of bringing expensive gifts to the girls whenever he returns, but he does bring them postcards, which they love. “He found a postcard that shows a freighter with the moon—that’s their favorite postcard.”

Sue has had some adjustments to make, too, such as Tom not being there when she had emergency surgery. When he is home, she needs him to spend time being both a daddy and a husband. Her parents sometimes keep the two girls overnight so Sue and Tom can go to a movie or out to dinner, or just have some time alone to talk while sitting on a park bench. “It’s hard on me,” she admits. “Mom needs time, too!”

She’s constantly reminded of one seaman’s spouse who has had nervous breakdowns. This reinforces Sue’s belief that families of seafarers in the same area need to form support groups. She hopes to begin a group through notices in employee newsletters of shipping companies that operate on the Great Lakes.

Fishers of Women and Men

The shipping industry has undergone many changes since Father Rivers Patout began ministering to seafarers in 1968. Father Patout, 59, is a port chaplain at the Houston International Seafarers’ Center. He says that a ship’s flag used to signify the nationality of the crew, but crews today tend to be multicultural, which means various languages, religions and dietary requirements. Father Patout is one of many AOS chaplains profiled in American Catholic Seafarers’ Church: A Narrative History of the Apostleship of the Sea and the National Catholic Conference for Seafarers in the United States, by Vincent A. Yzermans.

The Houston port chaplain says, “To my knowledge, our center was the first in the world that was ecumenical.” This ecumenical spirit continues today: The North American Maritime Ministry Conference is an ecumenical gathering taking place in Houston May 17-21. And the Port Chaplaincy School is an ecumenical two-week program held there each February. It’s the only program of its type in the United States and the model for programs being developed in other countries, says Father Patout.

One student who attended chaplaincy classes in Houston is Diane Bentley. She needs to complete some additional requirements before she is certified as a chaplain. This divorced mother of three became involved in Apostleship of the Sea after she quit a stressful management position in a warehouse located on the port of Seattle. Her parish priest, Father Tony Haycock, told her there was an opening for an administrator at a seafarer center in Seattle. Now she works there with Father Haycock and a Lutheran chaplain.

“It was helpful for me to go to the Houston chaplaincy school and see that I wasn’t the only one frustrated with things,” she says. “I learned ways to make the center available to seafarers” such as adding more phone lines for seafarers to call their families.

The Seattle center, like many others, relies heavily on fund-raising for financial support. “We get a lot of support from unions and the community,” explains Diane.

imageFather Tony Haycock, a port chaplain in Seattle, visits seafarer Raul Garcia in the hospital.

Not Just ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’

The national director of Apostleship of the Sea never heard of the organization in the 30 years he worked as a steamship agent. Now Deacon Robert Balderas, 59, is national director, with an office in Washington, D.C., and coordinator for the North American region of AOS (the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean).

As a steamship agent in New Orleans, Balderas says he did the same “holy things” an AOS chaplain does—greet multicultural crews, provide them with transportation, bring them home to spend time with his wife and kids. But Balderas admits that his reasons were strictly business: “The matter of ministry never entered my mind!”

“We’re not going to go aboard a ship looking for trouble, but we’re not going to run away from it.”

—Deacon Robert Balderas

After his 1981 ordination as a permanent deacon, Balderas resigned his position in New Orleans and moved to Texas so he could administer a priestless parish. Later he returned to New Orleans and became a port chaplain at the Stella Maris Maritime Center. (The Blessed Virgin, under her title “Stella Maris, Star of the Sea,” is a popular image for seafarers.) As a chaplain, Balderas says, “I tried to show them that someone really cared and that God loved them.”

Regarding the work of AOS chaplains, he says, “We’re not going to go aboard a ship looking for trouble, but we’re not going to run away from it. If there’s anything that we can do to alleviate some pain and suffering by mediating in a situation, great!” He says if the seafarers on a ship are physically, mentally and spiritually in good shape, they are going to be productive.

Deacon Balderas wants to promote “Christian living aboard ships” to seafarers who need to “see that they are Church and must minister to one another. We have to encourage and empower them because we can’t just sit on the docks anymore and wait for them to come to us.”

He says, “We cannot look to the ordained priesthood to continue to maintain this ministry....We’ve got to get the laity involved—both genders.” Today a number of deacons, brothers, sisters and laypeople join the priests who are involved in AOS ministry. At the Baltimore conference, the clergy and laymen gushed with praise of the women, noting that seamen find it easier to confide in women chaplains because the men think of them as substitute mothers or sisters. With male chaplains, seamen tend to put on a macho act.

Concern for People

One person repeatedly praised by his AOS peers is Msgr. James Dillenburg, 57, of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He began working with seafarers in Green Bay in the late 1960’s and now volunteers at that port one day a week, between his duties as a parish priest at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He’s also been national director of AOS and recently spent over five years in the Vatican working for international AOS concerns.

Dillenburg says, “Pope Paul VI was concerned about people who don’t have access to normal parish services, so he founded a pontifical congregation. It’s now the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples,” concerned with pastoral assistance to migrants, nomads, travelers and other people on the move. Apostleship of the Sea is one sector. Just two months ago, Pope John Paul II signed the first papal document on pastoral care of people of the sea. The pope’s letter gives AOS and the Pontifical Council new authority.

“In this ministry the parishioners keep moving around,” says Dillenburg. “Church people are usually the only people who board a ship to work for the seafarer—the others are all there for business purposes.”

Ships spend little time in one place and “problems are uncovered that can’t be resolved while the ship is in port,” he explains. Cruise ships require enough people to operate the ship and serve the needs of the passengers. But commercial ships have smaller crews, because of modern technology. “Today a container ship can unload and load more cargo in 24 hours than a ship used to be able to do in two weeks. Crews used to be upward of 40 or more people. Today a ship carries about 20 people or less because of technology....Sometimes, they can’t even effect a rescue at sea because there aren’t enough people to run the lifeboat and run the ship at the same time. That’s horrendous!

“Seafarers are invisible people. A ship can sink with 30 people aboard and it gets no notice. But if an airplane goes down with three people aboard it’s front-page news. Seafarers are quite expendable.” He recalls media coverage of some penguins that died from an oil slick when a tanker sank. But no mention was made of the people who died on the ship.

He says, “These people are like the poorest of the poor in the Gospel. They’re deaf because they can’t understand the [local] language. They’re blind because they can’t read the language. They may be without money.” (In addition to problems concerning withheld wages, seafarers from some countries have little spending money because a large percent of their salary must be sent to their families.)

He remembers a German captain who asked to be taken to a wooded area so he could walk on land by himself: “He came back a totally refreshed man and said that was the best gift anyone could have given him.”

Msgr. Dillenburg has also received gifts in his work with AOS: “I really believe this ministry has given me more than I could have possibly given it. I have the privilege of talking to these people and having my concept of God broadened a lot. I feel that makes me a better priest in my parish.”

For more information, contact Apostleship of the Sea’s national office, 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017 or call 202-541-3226. For information about the sculpture on page 28, call Koh-Varilla Guild, 773-327-8201.

Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of this publication who isn’t fond of being on the water or eating seafood, but tenderly recalls onshore fishing outings as a child with her father.

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