A pandemic and a safeguard of the port affect the ministry of the Catholic Church with maritime crews

LOS ANGELES – For years, maritime crews flocking to the Stella Maris Crew Center and Chapel have been greeted by a sign depicting Mary, proclaiming “Mass – Quiet Times – Relax / Free: Wi-Fi, Coffee and Cookies” .

Now, the sign indicating a safe harbor for thousands of sailors and hospitality workers around the world can be found behind locked doors at the Port of Los Angeles World Cruise Center in San Pedro.

Her upholstered sofas are empty. Its packaging of essential products on board, from warm socks to shampoo and rosary beads, remains unattended. His coffee machine, cold, despite two Holland America and Princess ships recently moored to a quay in front of its large bay windows.

And its Stella Maris Chapel – a sanctuary for sailors around the world who once eagerly received the Holy Eucharist after days, weeks or months at sea – is empty.

“Normally we would have 40 to 50 people in our chapel from these two cruise ships,” said Father Maurice Harrigan, pastor of nearby Mary Star of the Sea Church and its maritime branch at Berth 93.

“And now, zero. They are not allowed to leave their ships. It is a huge problem, for them and for us. They want to be served; we want to serve them. But there is nothing we can do, ”he told Angelus, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles online media.

The San Pedro Chapel slump comes as cruise lines, at a standstill during the COVID-19 contagion, restarted their engines this fall for world tours.

It also coincides with a save in the global supply chain that has clogged the country’s busiest container port, with up to 100 merchant ships idling while waiting to unload their cargo.

With so many ships swirling around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, it’s not entirely clear why thousands of their Catholic sailors were denied access to the Stella Maris Crew Center and Chapel.

Since ancient times, Stella Maris – the Latin title of Our Lady, Star of the Sea – has been their guiding star and the beacon of the historic Mary Star of the Sea Parish, its 80-year-old maritime ministry and its parish. priest.

Mary Star of the Sea Church, founded in 1889 on a hill overlooking the Port of Los Angeles, has been nicknamed the “Fisherman’s Parish” for its connections to the fishing and canning industries.

A brilliant Mother Mary has stood atop her tall steeple for decades, thanks in large part to Croatian and Italian fishermen who dedicated part of their daily catch to pay for the 10-foot bronze statue.

His welcome with open arms extended to thousands of sailors and ship crews crossing the Port of Los Angeles past Angel’s Gate.

The Stella Maris Chapel is an outgrowth of the parish linked to the Apostleship of the Sea, a Catholic organization that supports needy seafarers around the world.

For decades, a priest Marie Etoile de la Mer celebrated daily Mass in the chapel and offered pastoral advice, including communion. Crews of mostly foreign ships on shore leave were also helped to make medical appointments and visit their respective consulates.

When they weren’t going to church in a little alcove towards the back, dozens of men and women hung out in the living room, logging into his computers, leafing through his library, picking up Amazon deliveries, or receiving mailings. parcels of hygiene kits, prayer books and more, collected by local volunteers of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas.

Until the contagion of COVID-19, the Stella Maris Crew Center and Chapel saw up to 4,000 sailors per year, a majority of visiting cruise ships, many of whom were from the Philippines, South Asia. “Eastern and southern India,” Harrigan said.

The chapel was closed in March 2020 during a public health order banning worship inside during the pandemic. His former chaplain, Father Freddie Chua, is now pastor of the Church of the Annunciation in Arcadia, California.

Even with COVID-19 restrictions relaxed and increased cruise and cargo traffic, church officials said worshipers could not return. In fact, they just disappeared.

“It was in limbo,” said Nicholas Vilicich, sacristan of Mary Star of the Sea, who once helped shuttle crews in a church van designated for Stella Maris. “The crews can’t get off the ship at all. We cannot get on the ships. It is a great loss for the crew members who need our help.

For decades, foreign-born crews on ships docked in US ports could simply apply for a shore permission visa and set off. Then came the pandemic, when security protocols stranded more than 200,000 sailors at sea for months. Now, some crews are granted shore permissions in various ports, including Los Angeles.

But Harrigan, who replaced Chua as Stella Maris Chapel chaplain, was puzzled as to why cruise ship crews were not showing up to Stella Maris. The chapel is open once a week until their return.

He said a Princess Cruises flight attendant told him federal customs officials were banning shore leaves over fears that crews in some countries could leave the ship. US customs officials have said this is not the case.

“We haven’t made any port-wide changes regarding land passes,” said Jaime Ruiz, branch manager for strategic media engagement for U.S. customs and border protection in a th -mail to the Angelus. “The last time I checked there were over 600 gravel passes. I’m assuming the volume will increase as the port congestion eases and the cruise lines resume their operations. “

He said CBP officers conduct interviews and risk assessment of crew members with valid visa and passport to determine whether a shore pass should be granted. The agency also grants special circumstances leave to crew members who are not eligible for a shore pass, such as in need of medical attention.

He said he suspected that the decrease in the number of attendees at Stella Maris could be largely due to the hiatus in cruise ship operations over the past year, given that a cruise ship may have more 1,600 crew members compared to a container ship which typically has around 20 crew members.

“Cruise ship arrivals have picked up over the past two months,” Ruiz said, “but we are still not at pre-COVID volume.”

“We have received requests from carriers, cruise ships and ship captains to refuse shore passes,” he said. “However, we still issue the shore pass on the basis of the aforementioned risk assessment and not on the basis of an industry request.”

Holland America, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Carnival Corporation & plc, did not return the calls. A spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, also a branch of Carnival, said that from time to time, due to operational, compliance or safety considerations, shore leave may not be available.

A spokesperson for Carnival Corporation said in an email that it had done some preliminary checks and that “it looks like our crew members are taking time off ashore” in Los Angeles.

But according to the Sea Me Crew Foundation, a non-profit advocacy and support group for global crew members based in Vancouver, B.C., it has been very erratic about who can get off a ship and who can’t. not, depending on the ship and port. call, as well as the number of COVID-19 cases on board.

“To my knowledge, (Princess) doesn’t let go of crews in LA,” said Krista Thomas, founding president of the foundation, which has 60,000 crew members on Facebook. “I haven’t heard of anyone coming down to LA lately. “

Meanwhile, Harrigan said he was working with officials at Princess Cruises so that he could provide service to sailors on deck with their ships in port.

“These people have a very difficult life being seafarers,” said Harrigan, 58, from Glendale who left the business world after feeling the call to the priesthood. “And it was especially difficult for us to serve them. On the ship they don’t have Wi-Fi, comfy sofas, widescreen TVs, things we all take for granted.

“I am very sad, distressed. I wish we can serve our people, ”he said. “Those we serve cannot come to worship – to receive Mass, any of the sacraments. … They are spiritually starving.

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Bartholomew writes for Angelus, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ online media.

Charles K. Eckert