CHARLESTON — A seemingly endless stream of container ships make their way in and out of Charleston harbor every day, but many people don’t realize that Catholic ministries are also there, providing for the spiritual, social and material needs of the crew members.
Father Robert Higgins, who serves as chaplain for the Port of Charleston, said many seafarers need a way to keep their faith going while at sea for long stretches. Other faiths enjoy a friendly word and the knowledge that someone cares about them.
Father Higgins works with two groups who help fill those needs. He is the diocesan representative to the Apostolate of the Sea–USA, an agency that falls under the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ office of pastoral care to migrants, refugees and travelers. The Apostolate was founded in Scotland in 1920 and now works to provide pastoral care to seafarers all around the world.
He is also on the board of directors of the Charleston Area Port and Seafarers Society, which maintains offices at the ports and is seeking more Catholic volunteers because it is the faith of so many seafarers, Father Higgins said.
Volunteers board ships when they come into the harbor, socialize with crew members, and help them with whatever they might need for the short time they’re in port. The Society provides computers and phones for crew members to contact family members. Volunteers also drive the workers to Walmart and other area stores for toiletries, clothing items and other supplies.
Gene McLaughlin, a member of St. Benedict Church in Mount Pleasant, has gone to the ports on Sundays for 12 years.
McLaughlin does whatever he can for the crew members. Sometimes he takes them to Mass or on errands. Often, a good conversation is what they want.
“Some people are on their ships for six to nine months, maybe even a year,” McLaughlin said. “That’s a very confined environment and in order for people to get along, as you can imagine, they have to subjugate themselves to the common good on a regular basis. So when they get here, they’re so appreciative of anything you do for them while they’re in port. There’s a real joy in being with the people, talking with them. Most of them have a delightful sense of humor and you can just laugh and joke with them.”
A large number of seafarers come from the Philippines and India, but there are also many from Europe, Indonesia, and Eastern Europe, particularly Montenegro, Serbia and Poland.
Other members of St. Benedict also volunteer at the port and help provide for the seafarers. Christmas and other holidays are especially important, and parishioners put together Christmas boxes of toiletries and other supplies for crew members during these celebrations.
Paul Rosenblum, a member of St. Mary of the Annunciation Church in Charleston, has gone to the ports on Saturdays for eight years. He and other volunteers hand out rosaries, prayer books, magazines and other items.
“First, we are mostly a ministry of presence, to meet both the physical needs and the spiritual needs of the people,” Rosenblum said. “Not all the seafarers have shore leave, and a lot of times it’s important to just let them know people are interested in them as human beings and that we’re available to them. Seafarers a lot of times feel like they’re anonymous wherever they go, and we try to change that.”