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Responding to a death at sea

In May when the container ship Santa Bettina was a week into its voyage from New York to the port of Tilbury in Essex, the captain was discovered dead on board, leaving the crew shocked and distraught.

Upon hearing the news, AoS port chaplain Fr Colum Kelly (pictured below) went on board the ship when it docked in Tilbury. He knew from experience how a seafarer’s death can often have a huge effect on the emotional and psychological health of other crew members.

The crew of a ship often spend months at sea together and become very close-knit, almost like a family. Unlike shore-based workplaces, seafarers don’t normally get time-off for bereavement or the necessary support, and this is where AoS port chaplains are able to help.

I spent time listening to the crew and hearing of the stress that they had been feeling during the voyage”, said Fr Colum. “It emerged the death took place one week into the voyage. It was the first time the crew had sailed with that captain so they knew very little about him. 

“His body was laid in his sealed cabin for the remainder of the voyage. This was particularly distressing for the young seafarer who had discovered the body. It was the first time he had seen a corpse”, he added.

Fr Colum Kelly with a seafarer

The crew asked Fr Colum to say Mass and to bless specific areas of the ship, including some cabins and the spot where the captain’s body was found. Fr Colum said the atmosphere seemed to change after Mass and there was a sense of relief among the crew.

“It was a terrible time for the seafarers, but at the end of the day there was a sense of joy in the midst of the grief, stress and bewilderment. This tragic incident is a powerful example of AoS’ ministry of going to where the hurt is… the Church in outreach to those on the margins, where the Holy Father encourages us to go”.

We know that what Fr Colum calls the “small gestures” which port chaplains and ship visitors make are deeply appreciated by seafarers. And it’s only thanks to the continued generosity of its supporters that AoS can provide pastoral care and practical help to seafarers, who bring to Britain so many of the goods we rely on in our daily life.

Please consider continuing your generous support by making a donation today. 

PS. AoS port chaplains and volunteers are only able to support the faith and welfare of thousands of seafarers each year thanks to your generous donations and prayers. Thank you.

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