ABOARD THE STAR TRUST — Shortly after Bishop William E. Koenig of Wilmington, Delaware, finished his first Mass aboard a refrigerated ocean cargo ship off the Delaware coast, he chatted with a group of Filipino crew members who were attending Mass together for the first time attended months.
“What’s your favorite port,” he asked the 20 or so men who had been at sea since January.
“These ones,” said crew member Kim Rasyl Cambiado with a beaming ear-to-ear smile.
“That is good,” replied the bishop. “This is my favorite ship.”
The men, who are all Catholics, were docked in Wilmington Harbor where their ship delivered its cargo of Chilean fruit.
The ship was briefly in port when the Wilmington Diocese Communications Office received a call on April 4. It would cast off in a day or two, and the men would be at sea over Easter. Could the diocese find a priest willing to say mass on board the ship where the men without land passes were imprisoned?
News of the request reached Koenig. Not only could the diocese find a priest, but the next day the prelate, in his first year as bishop and pastor of Wilmington, made his way to the freighter’s gangway.
“This is a first for me,” Koenig told the eager crew, who had gathered in the galley to get ready for Mass when the bishop arrived in the afternoon. “I’m really happy and glad to be with you.”
English is the primary language of most men, so speaking to the bishop was free and easy.
Cambiado seized the opportunity when the bishop asked if anyone would read at Mass. The men travel the world on the cargo ship, work nine months and then have three months off, and Cambiado said he hasn’t been to the fair since New Year’s Eve.
Opportunities to practice their faith are limited, and things were even worse at the height of the pandemic. Some have been on board the ship for up to 17 consecutive months.
Cambiado said he last went to mass at home in Camarines Sur province in the Philippines’ Bicol Peninsula. His brother, parents and grandparents are devout Catholics and the absence of Mass is a rarity. His home parish is Nuestra Señora de las Angustias or “Our Mother of Sorrows”.
The 535-foot, 13-year-old Star Trust cargo ship flies the Singapore flag. Since mid-February she has been stationed in Senegal, France, Italy, Turkey and the United States.
The men don’t have much to do on the ship, so the internet is crucial. Most have electronic devices that allow them to use Facetime and WhatsApp programs to stay in close touch with family.
At some ports of call, they have time for a change of scenery and relaxation at facilities like the Seamen’s Center of Wilmington, where Christine Lassiter is Managing Director.
The ranch-style home on a waterfront lot not far from the dock offers amenities like games, snacks, gently used clothing, and places for the men to have quiet time and privacy to phone home.
The Seafarers’ Center’s mission, according to the group’s website, is to meet the needs of seafarers who visit Delaware ports. Its goal is to make time in port worthwhile for the men by providing personal, practical and spiritual assistance to ease the pain of loneliness and isolation and to provide a respite from the dangers of the sea.
“They were excited, not just about the Mass, but about the bishop,” said Lassiter, who made the first call that got the ball rolling on the bishop’s visit.
The men were seated and ready when the bishop arrived a few minutes early. They wore bright, new overalls.
“It was a mark of respect for her,” Lassiter told The Dialog, the Wilmington diocesan newspaper. “They are very respectful. I’m sure if they had tails they would have been in tails.
“It’s something they will remember forever. They are extremely grateful people, grateful for everything. It is so beautiful. They really appreciate everything you do for them.”
When interacting with the bishop after Mass, each of the men held the bishop’s hand to their forehead, which is a sign of respect in the Philippines.
Cambiado was happy to share some good news with his family.
“I’ll tell you I had my first Mass aboard a ship,” said Cambiado, who is taking part in his first voyage. “I am very pleased to meet the Bishop of Wilmington.”
23 year old single man is home student. He currently enjoys seeing the world and continuing his education on the job.
Cambiado has an idea of what he wants to do in the future. He wants to have a family, but he’s in no hurry.
“My plan is that I don’t get married before 30,” he said.
Sensitive to the isolation that seafarers can experience, the bishop shared the joy of celebrating Mass with them.
“We pray for the people in the maritime industry,” he said in his sermon. “We pray for our families, pray that they are safe. God is calling us this Lent to contemplate the great love that God has for us.”
After Mass, the bishop spoke to the men and shared chocolate cakes, which the chef proudly served.
“That was amazing,” Lassiter said. “They are just happy people, it’s a pleasure to be here.”
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Owens is editor of The Dialog, newspaper of the Diocese of Wilmington.