Exotic destinations, tumultuous seas and diverse cultures all are parts of the life of a seaman. The seemingly endless months of separation from family, language barriers, and detachment from faith practices all place burdens on the shoulders of many seamen. The isolation and loneliness in their lives can be emotionally burdensome, and, with the incessant pressure on crews to meet deadlines, personal time is limited.
Founded in 1899 in Glasgow, Scotland, Stella Maris “Star of Sea” centers today operate in almost every major country of the world. One typical center in the United States, the Baltimore Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) Center directed by Monsignor John FitzGerald, assists hundreds of seamen throughout the year and relies solely on donations.
The centers provide the visiting seamen with calling cards, Internet, e-mail and web cam access to reach their families, transportation for any necessary shopping, and medical or dental appointments.
The individual support the men received from volunteers of the Apostolate of the Sea’s center in Baltimore was of great help to the crews that came from the tsunami-stricken region in 2004. Many of the men were unable to reach friends or family at home due to the lack of phone or Internet access because of the disaster. As a result, these men endured weeks and months not knowing if their loved ones survived.
“The appreciation from the men on these ships is incredible, and the experience gained by the volunteers who offer their time is equally touching,” Mgr. FitzGerald says.
There are over 2,500 ships arriving annually at the Port of Baltimore, in part due to its convenient location close to numerous highways and railways. As the furthest inland port along the East Coast, Baltimore continues to see an increase in ship traffic annually. However, since 9/11, access to all ports is very limited and the Port of Baltimore is inaccessible to members of the public without security clearance.
Obtaining R1 visas for chaplains to visit the ports is a struggle for the apostolate on a national level, according to Sister Myrna Tordillo, national director of the AOS. Despite their reluctance to provide these visas, federal officials are becoming more understanding of the importance of the AOS mission and its impact on seamen. Sister Tordillo says there is also a great need for an increase in chaplains at various other ports around the country.
“Many of the men coming through the ports are from developing countries and have been away from their families for months at a time,” FitzGerald said. “It’s up to us to take care of these people by offering them our assistance and outreach regardless of their faith or religious beliefs.”
The Baltimore center relies on a fleet of three vans and a staff working solely on a volunteer basis, largely members of the Knights of Columbus and Daughters of the Americas. At Christmas, local men and women’s clubs, elementary students, and senior citizen groups assembled over 1,000 shoeboxes filled with secular and religious magazines, hygiene products, crossword books, candy, socks, gloves and novels that were given to all seamen during the Christmas season, even if they did not observe the religious holiday.
“These men have human dignity and we need to alert people of that, regardless if they are Muslim, Jewish, Christian or of any other religious background,” Monsignor FitzGerald says. “Most sacred scriptures advocate taking care of our fellow brothers and sisters, and that is what we are doing, even if these people are strangers.”
The large population of college volunteers and high school students in Baltimore is a target that FitzGerald is working to reach to obtain volunteers. Many local high schools require community service from students and AOS centers, such as the Baltimore location, work to attract many of these student volunteers.
FitzGerald hopes to gain volunteers by publicizing the AOS Baltimore center’s efforts for the seamen, and ensure the students are aware of the fact that Baltimore is much more than a tourist hotspot.
Ships’ crews today consist on average of about 30 seamen, because advanced maritime technology reduces the need for larger crews. The seamen are mostly young adult men, and they are not in port for much longer than one or two days. The ships’ short stays in port can make it difficult for AOS centers and their volunteers to create a meaningful connection with the men while making time for their errands that may require transportation into a city.
In their only several days in port at the most, the seamen are often busy loading and unloading goods, making time of the essence for the AOS ministry.
“Trying to recruit and train ship visitors is our biggest goal right now,” FitzGerald says. “These men sincerely appreciate the work of our volunteers. That is why I’ve learned the word ‘thank you’ in just about every language in the world.”