Pope John Paul II summed up the challenge of the Apostleship of the Sea as follows: "In fulfilling this mission to seafarers, you face a most challenging and difficult task. You are dealing with people who live in a dispersed milieu. They face painful problems, such as separation from family and friends, and the resulting feelings of isolation and loneliness; for extended periods of time they live and work at a great distance from a territorial parish. In a real sense the seafaring world has become a missionary world."
The Stella Maris Seafarers' Centre, Melbourne, is part of an international apostolate of the Catholic Church which extends hospitality and pastoral care to the seafarers of the world. In almost every country provision is made for the care of seafarers who, arriving in port, find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, with unfamiliar foreign currencies, languages and customs.
A seafarer can now come ashore at many ports around the world knowing there is a place where he will be welcomed and provided for - both materially and spiritually. For example, the centres for seafarers provide international telephone facilities for contacting family and friends and shops where basic necessities can be purchased and mail posted.
Melbourne's Stella Maris Centre had its origins in 1895 when at a general meeting of the St Vincent de Paul Society, the president urged that conferences be established at Port Melbourne and Williamstown to undertake the work for seamen "taken up energetically in England, Ireland and the maritime towns of the continent by members of our society." Subsequently, in 1900, a conference was established at St Mary's, Williamstown, and the care of seafarers began.
Some years later, in 1931, at a Mass commemorating the Golden Jubilee of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia, Archbishop Daniel Mannix asked that the Society might mark the occasion by establishing a Seamen's Institute in Melbourne. The blessing and opening of this took place the following year. A number of women who worked at the nearby Central Telegraph Exchange formed a group that helped entertain the seafarers as well as raise funds for the organisation. They became known as the Stella Maris Ladies Auxiliary. Fr Fennessy, then at St Patrick's Cathedral, was appointed Spiritual Director.
The Stella Maris Centre was especially busy during World War II when numerous Allied vessels called at Australian ports. The Catholic Women's League was able to obtain a service hut and canteen which were blessed by Archbishop Mannix and officially opened by the Governor of Victoria. Dances were organised three times a week while the Carmelite Fathers provided for spiritual needs. According to the Centre's records, 19,019 seafarers used the facilities during 1945, while members of the St Vincent de Paul Society visited 781 ships.
The period after World War II was one of dislocation, when the apostolate was maintained largely due to the heroic efforts of a few individuals. However, following his appointment as the first full-time chaplain in 1960, Father Kevin Quinlan promptly drew all interested parties together to establish a Melbourne section of the International Apostleship of the Sea. This reflected what was occurring internationally.
Pope Pius XII had earlier transferred the Apostleship's headquarters from Glasgow (Scotland) to an International Secretariat in Rome, while the Australian bishops, recognising that the care of seafarers was a task requiring more of the Church's attention, appointed an Episcopal Committee with a National Director to head the Apostleship of the Sea in Australia. Chaplains were appointed at Australia's major ports and the St Vincent de Paul Society gradually relinquished its responsibility in this area.
In 1967 the Stella Maris Seafarers' Centre moved into its present site at 600 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, while five years later, the old warehouse was replaced by the new building in use today. The incorporation of a carpark enabled funds to be raised to pay for the development.
In 1989, the number of seafarers using the Centre peaked at around 20,000. Since then, the numbers have declined due to a fall-off in the volume of shipping entering port.
Father Michael Richardson was appointed in 1974 to assist Father Quinlan, who retired in 1975 as Port Chaplain and Director of the Stella Maris Club. Father Richardson would remain as Port Chaplain until his retirement in 1996 to become parish priest at Mansfield. He still remains as National Director of the Australian Apostleship of the Sea.
In 1997 a committee of management was set up and the work continues with the spiritual help of three Columban priests.
The Stella Maris Centre urgently need a wide range of assistance to continue its apostolate: prayers, welcoming seafarers to the Centres, operating international telephones, visiting seafarers in hospital, visiting ships on behalf of the Centre, providing transport, telling other Catholics about the work, and making financial donations.
Those wishing to help should contact Peter Walsh at the Stella Maris Seafarers' Centre, 600 Little Collins Street, Melbourne 3000, tel (03) 9629 7494.