By Frances Yong
The Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) was recognized by the Holy See on 21 November 1957. In 1958, the Singapore chapter of the AOS was officially launched.
Prior to the official approval of the Holy See, the AOS was already in operation in Singapore. Early records in the 1940s offered a glimpse into documented activities by Fr Fox, the port chaplain at that time. He operated from the Catholic Centre at Bras Basah Road where many sailors as well as the British armed forces found spiritual comfort away from home.
Fr Fox would divide his time between the trading ships at Anson Road and the oil vessels at Pulau Bukom. Occasionally, he would hear confessions of those who found their way to the Catholic Centre. Fr Fox summarized his encounters profoundly, “The great difficulty is that a landsman can rarely imagine the state of mind of a junior engineer, a deck-boy, a second cook, any man who earns his living in a cargo ship, when he steps ashore after work at 6.45p.m. in a strange port at the end of a two months’ voyage. Outwardly he appears normal enough; inwardly his soul (is) thirsting for God more than he knows”.
In 1958, with the official launch of the AOS, the port chaplaincy was moved to Hood Lodge, where the present annex building of the Church of St Teresa stands.
The AOS in Singapore runs the Stella Maris Catholic Seamen’s Mission. The current port chaplain, Fr Romeo Yu-Chang, CICM, has been serving in this ministry since 2001. He continues to reside in the Church of St Teresa, allowing him close proximity to the busy port.
The objective of the AOS is to offer pastoral care to those in need; solidarity with the oppressed; welcome and hospitality to those on the move; and spiritual sustenance to the poor, enabling seafarers and fishers to be the light of Christ for each other.
In 2004, the MPA cooperated with AOS and other Christian missions to operate a welfare centre at Finger Pier. Together with other Christian brethren, Fr Romeo and the AOS volunteers have greater accessibility to reach a far larger number of visiting seafarers to Singapore.
Mission to Seafarers in Singapore
Singapore’s strategic location in the maritime highway has long won it a reputation of being an important trading port. Today, Singapore bears the official title of being the busiest port in the world. According to the Singapore’s Maritime Port Authority (MPA), a ship arrives and departs every 2 minutes at our ports. For the ports to run smoothly, the authorities recognize the importance of providing not only a robust infrastructure for the vessels to operate efficiently, but also a supportive welfare system that caters to the emotional and spiritual needs of the visiting seafarers.
How this is executed today, has vastly changed from Fr Fox’s time. Fr Romeo shares the following progress the AOS has made in recent years:
1. Greater Access
Backed by the MPA, the AOS has greater access at the ports than Fr Fox did during the British occupation. Institutions are also more open to in recognizing the need for emotional and spiritual support for the crew.
Every other month, Fr Romeo sails with the Star Cruise, availing himself for three days to the crew.
Aware of the needs of distressed migrant fishermen, Fr Romeo placed his hotline on posters at Jurong Fishing Port. Many men have contacted him via this avenue. When their native embassies aren’t able to help, Fr Romeo provides temporary shelter at the Church of St Teresa and fares for their passage home.
2. Volunteer Support
With increasing efficiency at the ports, the vessels spend a shorter time bunkered at the ports. This results in the crew having to remain on deck or on the dock itself.
While Fr Romeo continues to visit on board the ships, the Stella Maris centre at Finger Pier provides an alternative haven to those who need it. The Stella Maris centre is managed by 2 volunteers. It offers the crew a brief homely respite within easy access of their vessel. Those who need to make calls to their home are also welcome to use the facilities here.
The rapid growth of the shipping capacity in Singapore meant more resources are required to attend to the needs of the growing number of seafarers. Fr Romeo, together with 3 able-bodied volunteers cover more ground during their ship visits. To be a volunteer, one must be affable, able to scale the gangway and comfortable with heights. Literally, Fr Romeo needs more hands on deck.
3. Ecumenical Approach
The AOS operates in cohesion with other Christian ministries to show the unconditional love of Christ to the seafarers, in sincere respect of his personal values and beliefs. Together, they work towards for unity, peace and tolerance in respect and value of other religious beliefs.
Chaplains and ship visitors approach seafarers as friends offering spiritual support on the seafarers’ own terms, nurturing their spirituality and working for their dignity as human beings.
“What the seafarers need is for someone to talk to, to listen to them. It gets lonely being away from their family and loved ones. What they look for is comfort”, shares Fr Romeo. The times may have changed but the thirsting emotional need of the seafarers seem lamentably constant.
The logo is made up of three parts – the Heart, the life buoy and the anchor.
The centrepiece of the logo is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Rays radiate from the heart symbolising the apostles taking their love to seafarers.
The words “Apostolatus Maris” are written in the life buoy, which connotes the saving work of the Apostolate.
In the background is an anchor, a symbol of hope and salvation for ships in troubled waters.
Monument of Love, the Church of St Teresa – Church of St Teresa, 2005
The Apostleship of the Sea in Singapore – CatholicNews Archives, The Malayan Catholic Newsletter, 8 October 1950
The Catholic Centre of Singapore, In the Early Days – CatholicNews Archives, The Malayan Catholic Newsletter, 27 April 1952
Going the Extra Mile for Fishermen – CatholicNews Vol 64, 20 April 2014