September 21 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Helping sailors from ship to shore

EUAN McARTHUR speaks to a retired teacher about her work bringing compassion and Christ to seafarers

Mary Wheeler was enjoying retirement until one day her attention was grasped by an appeal on behalf of Apostleship of the Sea (AoS). She has since spent much of her free time helping seafarers on behalf of the Catholic charity.

Having previously enjoyed a career as a primary school teacher, the last three years have proved a radical departure from anything she might have envisaged doing once she’d finished her duties in the classroom.

Ms Wheeler assists seafarers who arrive in the Port of Greenock, both practically and spiritually. For someone whose only connection with the sea beforehand was enjoying a cruise abroad with her husband, Russell, she has thrown herself into this special ministry.

During the month of September, when Stella Maris Masses are celebrated throughout Scotland, with the next one set to take place in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh this coming Monday, Ms Wheeler reflected on her recent experiences which have surprised even herself.

“My life has changed since becoming a ship-visitor,” Ms Wheeler said.

“I had no idea about anything which the Apostleship of the Sea did to help seafarers.

“It wasn’t until I heard Joe O’Donnell —our senior regional port chaplain for Scotland—speaking in St Mungo’s in Glasgow one Sunday about the mission that it made me think.

“I had just retired and thought that sounds good to me. I would like to get involved.

“So I really went into it totally blind when Joe asked me if I would like to do some ship-visiting.

“My first visit was with him in the Port of Grangemouth. It was a familiarisation exercise and it turned out it was a whole loads of guys he knew well and had built up a relationship with.

“Immediately, I thought I can do this and hopefully help these seafarers. It’s been a great experience.”

Ms Wheeler has been helped along the way by AoS who’ve sponsored her to assist those who arrive in UK shores, often thousands of miles from their families.

A parishioner of St Michael’s, Dumbarton, Ms Wheeler has swapped the art of teaching for a quiet presence aiding ordinary seafarers.

She explained: “The Apostleship of the Sea is sponsoring my Catechetics course—a theology course run by the archdiocese.

“When I am commissioned next year, I will be commissioned to work with the Apostleship of the Sea—not with a parish as such. I have found the course very interesting. The purpose is to bring the parish to the seafarers in the Body of Christ.

“About six months ago, it dawned on me: I’m a Eucharistic Minister so why am I not taking Communion to these guys?

“The first time I went on with the Eucharist, I thought, this is not going to be a case of sitting down with a Crucifix and a pair of candles.

“There was one Filipino chap—the cook on a particular ship—and I asked him if he would like to receive the Eucharist, to which he replied yes.

“He put his ladle down and joined his hands over his soup and he just looked at me. So we did the Our Father as well as an act of contrition.

“He then picked up his ladle and went back on with his work. That was it.”

While seafarers can face many difficulties and anxieties being cut off from loved ones for nine months at a time, there needs to be someone capable of lifting their spirits at the other end.

An easy-going individual by nature, Ms Wheeler is an ideal fit and is taken with the seafarers who happily share with her stories from back home.

“I do leave a ship with a sense of satisfaction,” she said.

“As most of these guys are normally in their mid-30’s and early 40’s, what I find is they love to tell me about their families and take out pictures.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but I do think they find I have an easy way about me and a bright way. You can’t go on there all dour-faced.

“Michael O’Connor, our other ship visitor in the Greenock area, is exactly the same. He’s up for a bit of a laugh when the time’s right and is light-hearted in his approach.

“As an experienced ex-seafarer who has been ship-visiting for many years, I’ve learnt so much from Michael.

“I’ve now got people in St Michael’s, Dumbarton saying, ‘are you going ship-visiting today Mary?’”

As well as her pastoral work, Ms Wheeler is accomplished in giving appeals on Sea Sunday, and recently did so in her own parish in July. She finds her efforts have fired the imagination of those nearby and is the first to admit even the closest person in her own life has been taken aback by the lengths she’s prepared to go to bring seafarers assistance.

She said: “People have come up to me after I made appeal at Mass on Sea Sunday, and asked, is it dangerous being a ship-visitor going on and off the ship?

“I reassured them that it’s not, because you are always in pairs.

“The guys—who’re mainly Filipino, Indonesian, or Eastern European—are just lovely.

“They’re well-mannered, respectful and appreciative of what we’re doing.

“The only time I had ever met another Filipino was on a cruise ship. That was my solitary connection with the sea prior to my involvement with the AoS.

“I actually wouldn’t go on a boat that wouldn’t take my car.

“I took a picture once of the accommodation ladder and showed it to my husband, Russell. He’d never known me to scale that sort of height in my life but, of course, I explained I have to in order to get on the ship.”


AoS Bishop Promoter for Scotland Bishop Stephen Robson will celebrate the Stella Maris Mass on Monday September 24 at 7pm in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.


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