Female port chaplains making a difference


Pat Ezra, the Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea port chaplain to Felixstowe and Ipswich, likes the fact that she is sometimes known as the lady in the pink hat.

She says she thought she should wear something that made her instantly recognisable around the port. While on holiday before she joined Stella Maris, she had found a pink see-through hard hat. This has proved to be a talking point both in the port and on many of the ships she boards. It provides a great ice-breaker.

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Pat, who joined Stella Maris in 2017 after working as a project manager in the space industry, making digital cameras for satellites and telescopes, is one of a growing number of female Stella Maris port chaplains and volunteer ship visitors. Thirty years ago, all the Catholic maritime charity’s port chaplains were priests.

Coming from a background of engineering, and having been one of very few female apprentices back in the 1980s, she was used to working in a heavily male dominated environment. What did come as a surprise back then though was the outdated attitudes of some of the people she met in the course of her work.

She has always had an interest in the maritime industry. In her teens she had attempted to join the merchant navy. When that didn’t work out she decided to follow a career in engineering.

When she began as a port chaplain, she didn’t encounter any difficulties with seafarers because she was a woman. They just accepted her. She was aware, though, that there were some issues they would probably prefer to discuss with a priest or deacon, with who there was a different dynamic.

Pat has only met two female seafarers during her time in East Anglia, a Dutch first officer and a cadet. The conversations she had with them were much the same as she has with their male counterparts: family, work and how they are feeling.

She thinks the main challenges female seafarers face are a greater sense of isolation and some practical difficulties surrounding the female cycle.

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Felixstowe is the UK’s busiest container port. When Pat visited it for the first time, she was struck not just by all the activity – lorries trundling past, forklift trucks darting round, cranes swinging above her – but just how big some of the vessels were.

Her role as a port chaplain is to make herself available to the seafarers she meets and ask if they need anything. Often they will ask for mobile phone top-up cards, SIM cards, or internet access, so they can contact their family back home. Sometimes they just want a listening ear.

Many seafarers are Catholic, often from the Philippines or India, and Pat will sometimes provide transport for them to attend Mass in a local church, or arrange for a priest to celebrate Mass on board. However, she is there for seafarers of all faiths or none.

As one of 227 Stella Maris chaplains working in 334 ports in 59 countries, Pat is part of an international network. This means that she can alert her counterpart in another country a ship is sailing to if, for example, she has any concerns about a seafarer’s mental health, or working conditions on board.

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At twenty-five Bryony Watson is the youngest Stella Maris port chaplain, covering Grimsby and Immingham in Lincolnshire. Before taking up her post two and a half years ago, she had been a volunteer ship visitor, assisting contacts in local Catholic parishes with the collection of Christmas shoeboxes, woolly hats and warm clothing.

After graduating from university in 2015 with a degree in fine art, Bryony had considered a career in teaching. Through her ship visiting she had become passionate about helping seafarers, so when a vacancy for a port chaplain came up she felt this was what she wanted to do full-time.

She found working in a very masculine world a daunting prospect at the beginning, but she soon found that the seafarers she met treated her with respect.

If she meets a female seafarer, they welcome the opportunity to have a chat with another woman, especially in situations where they are the only women on board the vessel.

Recently she met a female seafarer who said how exhausting it could be as the only woman on board, adding that she felt that to be respected even half as much as her male colleagues she had to work twice as hard.

For Bryony, the main thing she has learnt as a ship visitor and a port chaplain is the importance of really listening to someone, being there, being open, and giving the time to allow them to talk. Also, she has discovered never to under-estimate the power of a woolly hat and bars of chocolate!”

In July, at the Curzon cinema in London’s West End, Cardinal Vincent Nichols presented Hannah Forrest with the Pope Francis award from the charity Million Minutes, which celebrates the contributions young people make to creating a better society through putting Catholic social teaching into action.

For the last two years, the twenty-four-year-old psychology graduate has been a Stella Maris ship visitor in the port of Plymouth. While unemployed, she had had seen an advert for Stella Maris volunteers, and she thought ship visiting sounded interesting and something she could do.

She was aware of the work of Stella Maris from the Sea Sunday appeals each year in her local church. And she knew the seafarers had long contracts, and that they were away from their families for a long time.

However, visiting the port in Plymouth for the first time, she was amazed to discover that even on huge ships there was only a small crew. She felt she had discovered a hidden world, and one that had been there all along during her time growing up in the city.

She soon learned about the strain seafarers experience when they are away from their family for long periods. One visit to a ship that sticks in her mind was when she met a seafarer with a young child back home. He had over four months left of his contract, and said he was homesick. He told her he was worried that his daughter wouldn’t recognise him, or would be intimidated by him when he returned home.

Hannah listened, gave him encouragement, and tried to reassure him that everything would be okay. When she prepared to live the ship, he said to her that having the opportunity to be able to open up to someone about his worries had really helped him. After being at sea for several months, he just needed someone to talk to.

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