For more than 100 years, Stella Maris Melbourne has been providing practical and pastoral support to seafarers from around the world. The pandemic has inevitably made life more difficult for seafarers, who have been unable to dock due to government regulations and effectively leaving them trapped in their workplace. During this time, Stella Maris Melbourne has continued to serve those at sea, offering online Masses, care packages, vital medical supplies and most recently, access to COVID vaccinations.

In what was his first visit since the start of the COVID pandemic, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli celebrated Mass with staff and longtime volunteers at the Stella Maris Seafarers' Centre in Melbourne on Sunday 13 March. Located at 600 Little Collins Street, the Centre is considered a “home away from home” by those who spend months out at sea, away from their family and friends.

‘It's good to be back here!’ said Archbishop Comensoli. ‘It's a shame that we cannot have any seafarers with us today given the circumstances, but nonetheless, it's good to be here.’

We celebrate too the belated anniversary of the Stella Maris Centre amid the reality of the various lockdowns, and I want to acknowledge [Stella Maris Chaplain] Fr Wayne Edwards especially, who is unable to be here due to his parish duties.’

Stella Maris is part of the Catholic Church’s global ministry to seafarers, which has various isolated and independent beginnings around the world. In Melbourne, the ministry dates back to 1889, when members of the St Vincent de Paul Society visited ships docked at Port Melbourne and Williamstown. In 1902, local priest Fr Patrick May founded a St Vincent de Paul Society (SVDP) Conference at St Augustine’s in the city, and advocated for the ongoing care of seafarers visiting Australia. In 1904, SVDP Seamen’s Conferences were established at all ports of call around the country.

In 1920, a similar ministry to seafarers started in Glasgow, Scotland, led by Archbishop Donald Macintosh, Arthur Gannon and Peter Anson. Two years later, they approached Pope Pius XI who gave his blessing for the ministry and encouraged them to expand their work across the globe through what became known as “The Apostleship of the Sea”. Some 30 years later, Pope Pius XII raised the Apostolate to an official missionary work of the Catholic Church.

The international ministry would have celebrated its centenary in Glasgow in 2020, but the pandemic sadly put a halt to celebrations. This didn’t stop Stella Maris Australia from marking the occasion, however, as longtime Melbourne volunteer Christina Siciliano shared.

‘A friend in Rotary, John Wall, who also works at Australia Post, helped us get a special envelope made to acknowledge the 100 years, and it’s absolutely beautiful,’ said Christina. ‘The Stella Maris legacy is one of kindness and care – caring for the seafarers of the world in the name of Jesus Christ.

Our seafarers are the unsung heroes of our world, really. They keep the economy going.’

‘In the name of all Victorians and Australians, we welcome all seafarers to our centre; seafarers that bring economic prosperity to our country yet they themselves often come from poor countries. It really is living the Gospel and like Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”’

Stella Maris heritage acknowledged by Melbourne City Council

In 1931, as part of the golden jubilee of the St Vincent de Paul Society, a new centre was established for seafarers, then located at 546 Flinders Street. The centre was opened and blessed by then-Archbishop Daniel Mannix on 5 November and became a place of hospitality and spiritual welfare for those visiting Melbourne. Over the next few years, the centre would move to St Patrick's Hall (near St Augustine’s Church on Bourke Street), and then in 1934 it became known as the Catholic Seamen’s Institute.

In 1960, Fr Kevin Quinlan was appointed as Stella Maris' first full-time chaplain. A few years later, Archbishop James Knox gifted the apostolate with its current site at 600 Little Collins Street. Thanks to donations from volunteers and the local community, construction began for a purpose-built seafarers centre and in 1973, the Stella Maris Centre was officially opened.

Christina explained that the centre’s layout was based on Fr Quinlan’s research of seafarer centres around the world. ‘Our Seafarer Centre is based on the one at Tilbury in the UK, but on a smaller scale.’

‘Fr Kevin Quinlan was an amazing character and a very charismatic man,’ said Christina, recounting stories of his first visits to the ships in the 1960s. ‘Fr Quinlan would go to visit seafarers and had his priestly gear on, and they threw him into the Yarra! After being thrown off, he went on board again. And then for a second time they threw him overboard. By the third time all the wharfies and seafarers had very high regard for him!’

Fr Quinlan was proceeded by Fr Michael Richardson, who worked as Fr Quinlan’s apprentice and then became the centre’s chaplain in 1975.

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Fr Michael Richardson and Fr Kevin Quinlan, the initial chaplains of Stella Maris Melbourne Photo supplied

‘Fr Michael was there was there for 20 years and he was also parish priest of St Augustine's. His homilies were exceptional,’ shared Christina.

The last Sunday Mass was at 9pm for the seafarers to attend as well as those working late night or early morning shifts in the city. This included a number of distinguished businessmen and media personalities such as Bert Newton.

Bert was a great supporter of Stella Maris, and he thought Fr Michael was terrific, as did the seafarers,’ said Christina. ‘He used to buy loads of raffle tickets and support the centre.’

Christina recalls receiving a specially signed book from Bert after they'd met at one of the Centre's fundraisers. ‘Written in the flyleaf was: “To Christina, here’s to the future Archbishop Michael Richardson. Best always, Bert.” The book was Daniel Mannix: The Quality of Leadership by B.A. Santamaria.

Decades later, Fr Michael Richardson released his own memoir, I Once was a Port Chaplain (2010), and it was Bert who wrote the foreword. In it, Bert fondly recalled his visits to the seafarer’s club in the late 1970s:

I realised quickly that this was very important work, and the Club was a magnificent oasis for seafarers in a strange city and country. I didn’t know Father Kevin Quinlan, the founder, but of course his work and legacy are covered here so admirably by his successor, Father Michael Richardson. It must be a wonderful feeling for club members to know that for 50 years their work and time, and that of those before them, are remembered and appreciated by men and women of the sea whom they may never see again, who came from places that they probably will never visit.’

Melbourne City Council recently acknowledged the work of the Stella Maris Centre by placing a heritage overlay on the building. Christina said the recognition wasn't so much for the building, ‘but for the work that's carried out there.’

Continuing to serve ‘the forgotten people’

‘Stella Maris is the largest ship visiting welfare service in the world,’ Christina explained. The Melbourne centre provides accommodation for docked seafarers and cares for those who are waiting for their ships. Prior to the pandemic, the Stella Maris Centre was often visited by seafarers from the Philippines, China, India, Russia and Ukraine. ‘Or if they're sick and have to wait in the hospital, and sometimes their families visit from interstate and they stay with us.’

It has been 40 years since Christina began volunteering at the Stella Maris Centre. ‘Fr Quinlan became parish priest at St Kilda and he would get up and talk so passionately about Stella Maris. One day, this lady thought that her daughter should go to the centre and I went with her. I'm really lucky because I can remember the first seafarer I spoke with. His name was Abdul, and we spoke about French pastries!’

Christina says the ministry continues to be life-giving in unexpected ways.

‘When you sit and talk with seafarers... how can I explain it? Well, you know when you see people who need food – you give them food. Well with the seafarers, they are fed, but there's another deeper hunger: it’s the isolation.

‘I feel that they're not known. COVID has made that very clear. The incidents of suicide have increased and it became a humanitarian crisis when no government would allow seafarers to disembark. The ships arrived in port and seafarers had to stay on their ships. They were prisoners on their vessels.

‘That affects your mental state. The worst thing too is that many of the men take medicines and they could not get any during that time.

They are the forgotten people,’ said Christina. ‘People don’t really think about where they get all their goods from. As an island nation, we get 97% of our goods by sea! When you sit with them it's a privilege. I have always felt that. It's a special missionary work of the Church. You get back so much.’

Since February 2020, Stella Maris Melbourne has been livestreaming Sunday Mass, with Fr Wayne Edwards (current part-time chaplain of Stella Maris and parish priest of St Pius X, Heidelberg West) providing spiritual support to those unable to disembark. The team has also been assisting ships by providing essential goods and vital medications for seafarers.

During the height of the pandemic, Stella Maris partnered with local the Rotary Club and the International Transport Foundation (ITF) to provide almost 5,000 care packages for crews stuck at sea. And just recently, Seamus Quinn, president of the Stella Maris Centre, organised COVID vaccinations for visiting seafarers.

Seamus’ son, James, is a doctor and also provided prescriptions during that time,’ explained Christina. ‘Seamus persisted in getting the seafarers vaccinated and made at least 118 phone calls in three days to make it happen! He was so determined.’

Stella Maris not only offers spiritual and pastoral support but is also an advocate for seafarers who fall victim to unjust and illegal work practices.

‘There was one ship from Spain that came in and June [Stella Maris' Ship Welfare Officer] discovered that the crew hadn’t been paid for more than three months,’ Christina recounts. The Centre, with the assistance of the ITF, was able to recover the wages, which amounted to over half a million dollars.

Christina encourages locals to consider volunteering their time at the Stella Maris Centre. ‘We would warmly welcome volunteers. We’re looking for bus drivers down to the docks or people to help with maintenance – painting, cleaning, that sort of thing. Or simply come to sit and have a chat with the seafarers!’

‘We have a wonderful bunch of people [at the Centre] and everyone is willing to assist which is truly amazing,’ she shared. ‘And we all see the value of the work we do.’

‘There are so many untold stories. This really is the best-kept secret in Melbourne.’