Montreal port chaplains reach out to seafarers spending Christmas far from home
Chaplains also deliver about 1,500 Christmas gifts for each seafarer docking in Montreal
Michelle DePooter carries a box of Christmas gifts to the foot of the MSC Matilde, setting it down at the bottom of the ramp before a man in coveralls invites her aboard.
Wearing a reflective safety vest and a bright pink hard hat jammed over a Port of Montreal toque, she looks more like a dock worker than a chaplain.
But in the port terminals and aboard container ships like the 300-metre-long Matilde, she's a familiar face.
DePooter, 38, is one of two chaplains for the Ministry to Seafarers, an outreach mission of the Christian Reformed Church that operates out of Montreal's port.
All year round, she and fellow chaplain David Rozeboom visit each of the 50 to 80 ships that arrive in Montreal each month, providing both practical and spiritual support to their crews, most of whom come from low-income communities in India, the Philippines or Eastern Europe.
Between Nov. 25 and Christmas, they also deliver about 1,500 Christmas gifts — one for each seafarer to dock in Montreal. The gifts, assembled mostly by churches in Ontario, contain socks and hats, maybe a deck of cards and a few souvenirs.
DePooter works out of Mariners' House, a clubhouse funded by the port and shipping community that provides seafarers a place to relax and unwind.
DePooter says ship workers live a challenging life that requires them to be away from home for six to nine months at time while contending with bad weather, workplace danger and loneliness.
She says the ministry's goal is to support a group of people who are often forgotten or negatively stereotyped.
"They're away from their homes and their families for months at a time, and often lonely and isolated," she says in an interview.
"To be able to provide a listening ear, somebody different they can talk to, a place where they are recognized as people, as not a forgotten entity ... it's very important."
'We're here for everybody'
Back aboard the MSC Matilde, the ship's crew seems more interested in technological, rather than spiritual, concerns.
In the first minutes of her visit, DePooter sells several prepaid phone cards, changes a $100 bill, and makes arrangements to send a bus to bring the crew to the clubhouse later.
She says it's all part of the job of providing support to seafarers, regardless of religion or need.
"We try to cover immediate needs," she explains. "They're more likely to want to talk to us if they've talked to their families first."
While the MSC Matilde is registered in Panama, most of its crew members are Indian.
They seem excited to learn that DePooter, who is married to an Indian man, speaks a little Hindi and they're eager quiz her about the places she's visited.
Six of them pile into the van for the 15-minute drive back to the clubhouse, where some will stay and others will make their way downtown.
Musa Diner, an engineer from Romania who is the only non-Indian of the group, says he's no longer bothered by spending long months at sea.
But now, he says the sea is in his blood and he gets restless after a couple of months on land.
"I hear the sea calling to me, it says 'Come back to me, baby,"' says Diner, a 38-year-old father of two.
The crew says the Matilde will be in port for about 48 hours before heading back to Europe, meaning they'll be spending Christmas at sea.
Diner, the self-proclaimed joker of the group, says he plans to intercept Santa Claus in the Atlantic and take all the good presents.
For seafarers who do end up in the port over Christmas, DePooter says there will be a big party at the clubhouse on Christmas Eve, complete with food, games and both Catholic and Protestant religious services.
DePooter says that while seafarers are used to missing birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, some still find it especially hard to be away at Christmas.
Others don't mind and many, of course, aren't Christians at all.
"We're here for everybody," she says.