Seafarers adapt to changing times

Published April 1, 2000

Rev. J. David Mulholland is conducting the weekly pub lunch at the Missions to Seamen on the Toronto docks and he’s waving raffle tickets at the 25 or so lively guests assembled in the mission’s somewhat cramped dining area. Before he draws for a gift basket of food, he has an announcement.

“In a month, the mission will be changing its name, to be … less sexually distinctive,” he bellows. “Don’t go there!” comes a shout from the crowd. Undaunted, Mr. Mulholland presses on. “We will be known as the Mission to Seafarers,” he cries. The diners toss out other possibilities: “sea People!” “sea Creatures!”

And that is how, in typically high-spirited waterfront style, one group of people was told that the Anglican Church’s 144-year-old commitment to “they that go down to the sea in ships” would be entering a new phase.

On April 4—the date the new name takes effect—there will be a service of blessing and rededication in Westminster Abbey. “This will enable us to give thanks for what the society has achieved and to re-dedicate ourselves under our new name for the future,” said Rev. Glyn Jones, the Mission’s London-based secretary general.

The international society’s president, Britain’s Princess Royal, (formerly known as Princess Anne) will attend the service.

“We serve all seafarers whatever their nationality, faith or gender. By becoming the ‘Mission to Seafarers,’ we are making sure that everyone we serve feels valued and included,” Canon Jones said. The society’s flying angel symbol will also be updated.

Women have been present at the missions for many years and the push for the name change came from the chaplains themselves, according to society headquarters in London. Rev. Brian Evans, at the mission in Halifax, often sees female crew from cruise ships. A group of female British and Canadian navy veterans, some of whom served during the Second World War, gather regularly for the pub lunch in Toronto.

The Missions to Seafarers is one of the oldest and largest service organizations for ship crews in the world. Out of a total of some 900 missions to seafarers worldwide, the Anglican Church operates centres in about 100 ports—10 in Canada—and has chaplains on-call in another 200.

A port’s mission may be a handsome two-story chalet-style building, as in Toronto, or a house trailer, as in Thunder Bay, Ont., or a triple trailer, as in Halifax. Among the things they have in common: phone cards for sale and phones for calls home, magazines and books, food and drink for sale, used clothing, a recreation/lounge area that may contain a television, a pool table or table tennis, a vehicle to give sailors a lift to shopping malls or tourist attractions, and, of course, a chapel.

Chaplains also visit ships, bringing reading material and a sympathetic ear. Rev. Ed Swayze, in Thunder Bay, noted that the ship itself and its cargo are visited by any number of officials, from grain inspectors to stevedores, but “we are the only body off-ship that is interested in the crew.”

“I hear, ‘Father, I haven’t been paid,’ ‘Father, there are unsafe conditions,'” Mr. Evans said. Chaplains often phone union representatives and port safety officials about conditions aboard ship. Worldwide, the missions served a million seafarers last year and clergy made about 75,000 ship visits.

Working at sea has never been easy, but these priests hear how tough conditions have become. More crews are hired from Third World nations, and paid less, containerization means turnaround time in port is shorter and crews are at sea without a break longer. And then, there are the eternal dangers of the sea. In her address to the society’s annual meeting last year, the Princess Royal noted pirate attacks on 198 ships the year before had resulted in the deaths of 67 seafarers.

One thing clergy don’t do much of is preach a lot. “It is a ministry of presence,” Mr. Swayze said. They also learn to be flexible. “One day, we had two Filipinos, a Muslim and a Buddhist (at services) in here,” Mr. Mulholland said. While the non-Christians did not, of course, take communion, Mr. Mulholland created an impromptu prayer to include them. “I gave thanks to God for the traditions from whence we came,” he said.

Rev. Stephen Rowe, who has just arrived at the Vancouver mission after 14 years as a parish priest in Reading, England, said he found the unpredictable nature of his day-to-day ministry initially unsettling but, in the end, rejuvenating. “I spent 14 years in parish ministry and sometimes you wonder what is it that makes a difference,” he said, echoing a common concern of parish clergy. He doesn’t wonder that now. “If you are not here, all they have is the waterfront where they can be exploited in so many ways.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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