Stella Maris Center: A Home Away from Home

 

By Pinky B. Barrientos, FSP

Stella Maris Center: A Home Away from Home“I wish there is a place here in Manila where we can spend some time in comfort, just like in other countries where a Stella Maris Center provides internet access, decent and affordable accommodation, recreation and clean hot meals.”

This aspiration of an unnamed sea farer echoes that of thousands of others who walk the streets of Manila everyday scouring manning agencies with the hope of getting hired.

A center for seafarers, Apostolate of the Sea (AOS)-Stella Maris is found in many countries in the world where there are seafarers. According to Fr. Savino Bernardi, CS, the current chaplain of AOS-Manila; there are more than a hundred Catholic centers throughout the world, while Christian centers number about 300. All the centers cooperate together through an association called International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA). The center serves as dormitory for those who are waiting to be recalled into the maritime service. In the Philippines, these centers can be found in La Union, Batangas, Cebu, Maasin, Cagayan de Oro, Davao , and Iloilo City.

Ironically, despite its being a hub for business activities, where two of the busiest ports in the country are found, and scores of manning agencies are located, Manila is the last to put up a Stella Maris center to cater to the physical and spiritual needs of the Filipino seafarers.

For years, AOS had dreamt of a center for seafarers in Manila, touched as it was by the presence of hundreds of Filipino seafarers that congregate along the expanse of Kalaw Street in Ermita everyday, waiting for their chance of a seaman’s job. Finally, after eight long years of struggling to accomplish its long-held vision, AOS received an offer from the Archdiocese of Manila to convert the 4th and 5th floors, plus the roof top of MetroBank building in Ermita into a center for seafarers. Thus, on June 8 of this year, Stella Maris-Manila was born.

Barely four months since it started opening its doors to seafarers, the center, which was launched on July 31 this year is now teeming with 324 residents coming from all over the country.

“We are open to everybody even if they belong to other religions. Everyone is welcome,” says Des, one of the staff in the center.

Three lived-in staff takes care of the daily operation of the center. Des, who is a member of Scalabrinian Lay Association provides a mother and sister figure to the residents. The other two staff members, Richard, a former Scalabrini seminarian and Bert, a former lay minister, are like brothers to them. Their services extend beyond the usual 8-hour work shift. They often find themselves on their toes even late at night or in the wee hours of the morning either to welcome a late arrival or see someone off.

More than simply providing a decent shelter to seafarers, Stella Maris takes the extra mile of assisting them in other matters as well, like spiritual counseling and providing paralegal support for those who need it. The staff sees to it that prayer and spiritual input are given to seafarers. Personal differences are resolved through group dynamics. According to Des, residents can stay indefinitely as long as they pay. Among the residents, it is the cadets-in-training that usually stay longer. The veteran seafarers can be recalled anytime.

The place is indeed heaven-sent for a weary seafarer who struggles to make ends meet while waiting for the company call. Thinking of their dwindling expenses coupled with other problems back home can take a toll on any seafarer’s emotional and physical well being. Nevertheless, the center tries to respond to their recreational needs by providing magazines to those who like to read; and television for others who prefer to watch news and movies. There is also a ping pong table on the roof top and exercise machines for health buffs. The roof top is actually a multi-purpose facility. A small corner of it is used as a laundry area. It also has a pocket garden. The residents take charge of watering the plants. Round and rectangle tables are spread around where everyone can dine al fresco.

Residents obviously are satisfied with the services they get from Stella Maris. Francis, for instance, has been processing his papers for three months already. This would be his second time to go to sea if he is hired. He was staying in another dormitory before he transferred to Stella Maris. He says he likes staying in the center because he experiences a sense of brotherhood and cooperation. And he thinks there should be more centers like this in the country because of the good things it is doing for seafarers.

Unlike other dormitories where they earlier stayed, the residents in the center are not restricted in their use of water and electricity. Des confided that the center is paying a lot for utilities, and yet Stella Maris charges residents much lower than other dormitories do. Individual occupant, in fact, pays only P50 for a non air-conditioned room and P75 for an air-conditioned room per day.

Like Francis, John and Melchor were also staying in other dormitories when they heard about the center from their friends. In no time, they transferred residence and have been happy they did so. Melchor, a newly graduate of maritime course, hopes to board the ship sometime this month. This early he is already planning of staying at Stella Maris next time he comes ashore. “This is already my second home,” he confided.

Undeniably, Stella Maris-Manila still has a lot to accomplish in terms of achieving its goal of providing the seafarers with amenities that are at par with those of other centers abroad. But it is without doubt gradually realizing what it has endeavored to be since its inception.