Flecks of wheat sprayed through the air over Lake Superior as the discharge chute’s long metal arm shot the grain bin’s contents into storage containers aboard a freighter.
The 591-foot-long Ziemia Lodzka, a bulk cargo ship from Poland, was moored in Superior Harbor, across the Blatnik bridge from Duluth. Its 20-member crew had been on the sea for two months, stopping in Romania, Spain and Israel before sailing north to push down the St. Lawrence Seaway in Quebec and enter the Great Lakes.
A series of locks allowed the ship to navigate the lakes’ varying sea levels until it reached Duluth Nov. 10.
After loading the wheat, they were leaving on the afternoon of Nov. 11. Their next stop was Casablanca, Morocco. It would take about two weeks.
Typically, Father Bob Sipe, 76, would have scaled the gangplank to the ship’s deck to meet the men, but he was stuck on the ground due to a cold he didn’t want the seafarers to catch.
A retired priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Father Sipe now volunteers with the ecumenical Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers as a member of the international Catholic organization Apostleship of the Sea.
On this day, retired Minnesota state representative and fellow Twin Ports Ministry volunteer Mike Jaros met the crew alone to bring them cell phones and 42-minute calling cards when they arrived; later he took the crew members into Duluth to shop for necessities.
Jaros also translated Nov. 11 when The Catholic Spirit met the seafarers who are among Father Sipe’s new water-bound flock.
A busy retirement
The Apostleship of the Sea was founded in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1920s to serve mariners, fishermen and their families, and all who travel the world’s waterways, including cruise-goers.
The seafarers who come into the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., hail from all parts of the world, typically working in six- to nine-month contracted periods, the entirety of which they’re living aboard the ship.
In addition to meeting the seafarers’ practical needs, Father Sipe also offers to celebrate Mass aboard the ship, or he helps the crew get to a religious service if they’re in port over a Sunday. He’s also available for confessions and other sacraments.
After serving a handful of archdiocesan parishes over 45 years, Father Sipe retired from full-time parish ministry in 2004. He celebrated his 50th jubilee last summer.
After his last parish assignment at St. Peter in Forest Lake, Father Sipe moved to his family cabin near Grand Rapids, where he has childhood memories of swimming, fishing, hunting and spending summers with his parents and four siblings.
Even during World War II when gasoline and tires were rationed, his father, who was in the filling station business, would garner a few extra gas stamps to get the family up north from its home in Robbinsdale.
The 1940s cabin is about 80 miles from Duluth, a distance Father Sipe travels about once a week to spend a couple days meeting ships. He first learned of the Apostleship of the Sea a few months before he retired through a mailing that invited him to consider being a cruise priest. He thought he could get used to that.
Now he sits on the board of the U.S. chapter of Apostleship of the Sea, and his work has taken him well beyond Duluth’s harbor.
As a cruise ship chaplain, he’s rounded Cape Horn, Argentina’s southern-most tip; marveled at the Alaskan fiords; explored coast towns in the Caribbean, Hawaii, New Zealand, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Korea; visited family in Australia and inquired about the life of seafaring families in the Philippines, from where at least a third of the world’s seafarers come.
“I’ve never felt more like a priest,” he said, noting his retirement frees him from the meetings and parish politics that can entangle a pastor. And, ministering to a cruise ship crowd lets him mingle him with people who don’t always go to church. He often hears, “I used to be Catholic, but . . .” and has the opportunity to listen.
He celebrates Mass daily for cruise-goers and weekly for the crew. He wishes he were allowed to spend more time with the crew, who, like many of the seafarers he meets in the harbor, are from poor, politically corrupt countries.
Back at the Twin Ports, Father Sipe is grateful to have a center coordinating volunteers. Most U.S. Apostleship of the Sea volunteers are priests or deacons who work out of their cars, he said. Duluth is the busiest Great Lakes port.
“What you do find rewarding is the gratitude that somebody cares enough about them,” Father Sipe said. He’s had the chance to bring Eastern Orthodox crewmen to Divine Liturgy, and once took a group to Gooseberry Falls.
“They loved that,” he said.
The hard life of a seafarer has weathered the faces and hands of the Ziemia Lodzka’s crew. They are always working, they said, maintaining equipment and cleaning when they’re out at sea, and assisting with the loading or unloading of cargo while at port.
Eugeniusz Bornia, 55, has worked on ships for 30 years, he said, wearing a yellow hard hat and standing on the ship’s deck. In his hometown on the Baltic Sea, it’s a tradition to work on the water, he said. His great-grandfather did, his grandfather did and his father did.
His three children won’t, however, he said. Borrowing an adage from his father, he explained why: “The sea is for fish, not for people.”
Father Sipe recalls once asking a captain how many times he was able to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife, to whom he had been married 30 years.
The captain thought for a moment, calculating. “Once,” he answered.
While at sea, the men get news of deaths of family members or other life-changing events at home, and Father Sipe listens to them if they want to talk about it.
However, many ships are in port for only a day or two, and the opportunity isn’t always there to establish the rapport sharing often requires, Father Sipe said.
So, he supports them in other ways. White boxes with red ribbons are stacked against a wall in a basement room of the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers Duluth office. With the guidance of the ministry’s executive director Tom Anderson, a Lutheran pastor, they’re being filled with “ditty bags” — handmade cloth bags stuffed with nail clippers, toothpaste, sewing kits and other things useful to seafarers.
In late October, volunteers started giving them to ship captains, who will give them to the crew on Christmas Day. The office will distribute about 600 boxes by the holiday.
‘Majesty of the sea’
Father Sipe is impressed by the abiding faith he finds among the seafarers and the rootedness of many of their Catholic cultures.
Ziemia Lodzka crew member Marek Jankowicz, 51, said he relies on his prayers and holy cards to sustain him throughout the voyages. Because of the seafarers’ varied schedule, Pope Benedict XVI grants them a dispensation from their Sunday Mass obligation.
Working on the water has increased Father Sipe’s own appreciation of “the majesty of the sea,” he said, which he sometimes ponders while walking the cruise ship decks. “It’s bound to hit you — not only the vastness of it, but the depth of it,” he said. When he rounded Cape Horn in 2005, he felt truly at the end of the world, he said.
In his travels, he’s found special meaning in the allegory of Psalm 139. It describes how deeply God knows man and includes the verse: “If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast.”
Father Sipe plans to continue his ministry as long as his health — which is good — will allow, he said. He hopes to eventually establish a foundation to ensure the continuation of the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers.
“We are by far the best center on the Great Lakes,” he said. “I want to see this ministry continue to grow.” Catholic Spirit