Stars of the sea: Ports-based ministry serves seafarers

CHARLESTON — Three Catholics have found a way to fill a spiritual void for many seafaring strangers. One speaks the familiar language of their homeland, another welcomes them with warm sincerity and the third cares for their souls.

All three are members of the Charleston Port and Seafarers’ Society, an interfaith group that provides Christian sustenance and service to the men and women who make their livelihood on the ships docking in the Port of Charleston. CPSS has built a center that provides free religious and secular literature, phones, low-cost phone cards, free Internet, and rides to churches and shopping centers. The center is staffed by volunteers primarily from Protestant churches, and its members encourage more Catholics to join their ranks.

Manette Emnas, Gene McLaughlin and Dr. Frank Hyatt are the Catholic trio who go out to the Wando terminal on the weekends. The crew members they meet are multinational, but the majority are men from the Philippines and Thailand who have signed up for yearlong stints. They work to provide for their families and are away from loved ones and churches for challenging lengths of time.

Emnas hails from the Philippines and speaks several dialects of Tagalog, a welcome sound to seafarers from that country. She said she receives great respect in the mostly male environment. She works for a shipping company, and was aware that her countrymen came into port.

“I have been through hard times and have been blessed,” she said. “I want to help other people.”

McLaughlin is a retiree who heard about the ministry through his parish, St. Benedict, and embraced it as he does most strangers, with open arms.

“He’s the brains behind the outfit,” Hyatt said.

McLaughlin keeps track of ships that are docking, and some finances and supplies, but seems most comfortable talking and praying with people.

Hyatt, a retired emergency room doctor, is the mover and shaker. He desperately wants to see more Catholics donning hard hats, climbing gangways and sharing rosaries, holy water and prayer cards with these workers.

“Approximately 65,000 seafarers come through the port each year, and 75 percent of them are Roman Catholic,” he said.

The trio volunteers at the Wando terminal, which is the busiest, but would like to expand to the Union Pier, Columbus Street and North Charleston sites. Their mission entails a quick visit to several ships, sometimes sharing coffee or a meal, conversation and prayer.

“It’s fun,” Dr. Hyatt said, “and we definitely make a difference.”