Since it began in the port of Glasgow just over a hundred years ago, Stella Maris has become a lifeline for seafarers all over the world. Now, it’s looking to establish a team of volunteer ship visitors in Greenland.
Deacon David Noval, who last year became the first ever Stella Maris national director in Denmark, plans to spend three weeks in Greenland in May.
Stella Maris, formerly the Apostleship of the Sea, is a Catholic network of chaplains and volunteers offering spiritual and economic care to those who work on ships.
“There are a lot of Filipinos in Greenland. Most are working in the fish factories and others are working on large vessels,” he explained.
Approximately a third of those employed in the world’s maritime sector come from the Philippines. The reason most leave their homeland is to earn enough money to support their families.
Fishing and fish processing are the main industries in Greenland, which is the world’s largest island but only has a population of 56,000.
Deacon Noval said he is also hoping to extend the work of Stella Maris to other Nordic countries.
“Last summer I visited the Faroe Islands, and I’m going there for a follow-up this spring. I have been asked to go to Sweden and Finland to talk about the work of Stella Maris and discuss establishing ship visiting teams there.”
He and volunteers have already begun visiting ships in several Danish ports. Denmark is the world’s fifth-largest maritime nation. The country has more than 400 islands and a total coastline of more than 4,300 miles. Up to 75% of all imports to Denmark arrive by sea.
“Agreements have been established with several ports, and we have trained a number of ship visitors,” he said. “Stella Maris is well known in the maritime industry in Denmark. In Fredericia, we have volunteers who are serving hot meals for seafarers on cruise ships from a food truck.
“I am very happy and grateful to have been given this assignment by Stella Maris,” he said. “The last time Stella Maris operated in Denmark was in the 1960s, and it was led by the priest who baptized me in 1970.”
Deacon Noval aims to provide seafarers in Nordic countries with the kind of practical help and pastoral care that Stella Maris offers elsewhere in the world, such as in Kenya. Since before Christmas, Stella Maris has been supporting crew members on the Kenyan fishing vessel Ra-Horakhty, which was abandoned in Mombasa after its owners stopped providing it with supplies.
Margaret Masibo, director of Stella Maris in Mombasa, said: “We were informed of the crew’s dire situation by the International Transport Workers Federation inspector based here, so went to visit the vessel to assess the situation and see how best we could help. We invited other local seafarer groups to assist in our response. We had a long conversation with the captain of the ship, who said he and his crew were distressed, frustrated, hungry and exhausted.”
Stella Maris has kept in touch with the crew and provided food donated by Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa.
This case illustrates a wider problem of seafarer and fisher abandonment.
Throughout the pandemic, the face-to-face contact of Stella Maris port chaplains with seafarers has been restricted, but social media has helped them to support seafarers in new ways, said Masibo.
“Social media has been crucial in our interaction with seafarers,” she said. “It is through platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook that we are able to communicate with them and get constant updates on their situation, for both local and international seafarers.
“Social media is also a platform that we have used to create awareness about the lives and suffering of seafarers, as is the case of those on Ra-Horakhty. We have also been able to use it to communicate with Stella Maris port chaplains in other countries and, where necessary, refer seafarers to them.”
Since its beginnings in Glasgow in 1920, Stella Maris has grown steadily and now has more than 200 chaplains and over 700 volunteer ship visitors supporting seafarers and fishers in ports in more than 50 countries globally. It is the largest ship visiting network, and its network of chaplains and volunteers makes more than 70,000 visits to ships in a normal year.
Scalabrinian Father Bruno Ciceri, Stella Maris international network director, who is based in the Vatican, explained that, during the pandemic, Stella Maris supported not only seafarers but also some of their families.
“Because of the pandemic, some seafarers were abruptly made unemployed and without any source of income,” he said. “Thanks to the generous support of individuals, charitable organizations and the Stella Maris network of chaplains and volunteers, we were able to distribute a great number of emergency food packages in India and Philippines.”
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Watts is a freelance journalist and an author.