‘We’ll get you some dumplings’

Father David Mullholland, 74, chaplain at the Mission to Seafarers, Toronto, shares a laugh with two homesick young men from Shanghai. Photo: Alyssa Bistonath
Father David Mullholland, 74, chaplain at the Mission to Seafarers, Toronto, shares a laugh with two homesick young men from Shanghai. Photo: Alyssa Bistonath
Published November 1, 2012

It’s a rainy morning at the Port of Oshawa, Ont., and burly stevedores swarm around the Heloise, a huge ship from China, hoisting long poles of steel rebar up and out of the hold. But not everyone is there for the cargo. A man in a gold hard hat strides around the machinery, slapping backs and waving hello. Father David Mulholland is here to meet the men on board.

For 37 years, Mulholland has been a chaplain with the Mission to Seafarers, a worldwide Anglican mission that serves the 1.2 million men and women who haul 90 per cent of the world’s fuel, clothing and food. “It’s a lonely job, full of adventure or danger,” says Mulholland. “Either you’re bored or you’re terrified.”
On the worst days, workers face storms at sea, poorly equipped vessels, injuries and owners who won’t pay up. Many seafarers come from developing countries—the Philippines, India, Ethiopia—and their work supports extended families.

In 11 ports across Canada, mission staff help these workers any way they can, everything from offering a listening ear to a ride to the mall. Often, the connection starts with an on-board visit. The mission’s Flying Angel logo on a shirt or hat means a quick passport to foreign ships.

Today, Mulholland climbs up the slippery gangway of the Heloise and is greeted by a young, smiling Chinese crew.

Sprightly at 74, Mulholland has met thousands of seafarers while serving the ports of Toronto and Oshawa. He’s lived through the era of Soviet shipping and watched shipping ports grow and shrink around Lake Ontario. But his mission remains the same: welcome the stranger.

Loneliness is a common challenge for seafarers, often away for six months to a year. While they’re at sea, their access to satellite phones and the Internet is infrequent and expensive.

At the Halifax mission, Maggie Whittingham-Lamont, seafarer co-ordinator, brings cell phones directly on board for seafarers. Time to connect with loved ones is precious, she says, as ships often dock for hours instead of days.

Recently, a seafarer from Ghana asked Whittingham-Lamont to help him recover a lost money transfer of $5,700 (six months’ wages), which he had sent home to pay for his niece’s tuition. Whittingham-Lamont spent almost five hours on the phone and was finally able to help recover most of the money.

Bishop Michael Ingham of the diocese of New Westminster recently became liaison bishop to the Mission to Seafarers, replacing Bishop Terry Finlay, who retired after 25 years’ service. “Many who come through [the missions] are not Christians and yet everyone is treated with the same dignity and respect,” he says. “Very often their personal and family crises receive help.”

Back on the Heloise, Mulholland follows Tao Hongjia and Liu Ning, both in their 20s, for a ship tour. They stroll through control rooms, the kitchen and then out on the deck, overlooking the grey waters of Lake Ontario. The conversation takes on an urgent tone: the young men need to go to Chinatown…for dumplings. They grin sheepishly.

“Very good,” says Mulholland, returning the smile. “We’ll get you some dumplings.”


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