SUNDERLAND is the city of a thousand secret stories, but few modern day fables are as interesting as the self-confessed “Powerhouse of Prayer” providing a warm welcome to seafarers from across the globe.
Sister Mary Scholastica is one of the first people foreign seafarers come across when berthed at Port of Sunderland.
Amidst the clanging of cranes and hustle and bustle of lorries and forklift trucks at the port, a small haven of calm can be found in the form of the Stella Maris Seafarers Centre, where Sr. Scholastica dedicates herself to the welfare of the world’s mariners.
“I’m a welcome sight for seafarers,” said the 77-year-old, of the Sisters of Mercy, in her strong Irish accent. “Being at sea can be tiring, dangerous and lonely – it’s a job full of uncertainties.
“Since coming to the Port, I pride myself on being a certainty in their lives. When you dock in Port of Sunderland, you can be certain of me. I’ll be here with a hot cup of tea, internet access and the chapel, where all religions are always welcome.”
The Stella Maris Centre is a drop-in facility owned by Sunderland City Council and the Port. It was set up and run by Sr. Scholasitca in the name of the Apostleship of the Sea, a Catholic Charity aiming to provide practical and pastoral support to seafarers of all faiths. Sr. Scholastica provides the warmth and heartbeat to the centre.
She said: “In 2008 this was a derelict ex-sea cadet base, but I saw the potential of what it could be. With tender loving care and a lick of paint, it became the hub it is today. A place dedicated to offering a warm welcome to seafarers docking in Sunderland.”
But Stella Maris is so much more than a cosy hangout and Sr. Scholastica is so much more than a welcoming committee.
In 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, she found herself surrounded by Asian seafarers desperate to find out if their loved ones were safe – Sr. Scholastica bought “dongles”, providing the men and women with online access and peace of mind that their families were okay and well.
When a young Russian sailor became depressed and withdrawn after discovering the body of a refugee at sea, Sr. Scholastica brought him to Stella Maris and prayed with him.
Sr. Scholastica arranges Mass on the ships and buys thermal hats and socks for those in need. She is a regular fixture along the docks with her shopping trolley full of sweaters, toothpaste and taxi cards, to enable sailors to head into Sunderland City Centre.
This tech-savvy nun offers more than a hot drink and friendly ear – she also helps with the practicalities.
Sr. Scholastica said: “In life, you must first establish the essentials, then the frills come after – you can’t preach to a hungry man.
“When founding the centre, we ensured the essentials were in place; a roof for shelter, a kitchen for food, a chapel for prayer. Then add the rest, the homely touches, pictures and decorations.
“When the seafarers arrive, they have access to the essentials – food, internet, a phone connection, and a place to pray. Add to this the memories made, and you have all they need and more.”
She is also a mini-Tourist Information Centre, stocking leaflets on things to see in Sunderland, and eagerly signposting foreign visitors to the city’s best restaurants and beaches.
Sr. Scholastica is the epitome of Sunderland’s Age Friendly City status: a city that is welcoming and inclusive of everyone.
The intergenerational relationship between Sister Mary and the seamen is one of care, kindness and respect. She said: “Despite such differences – in age, vocation, religion and origin – it is lovely to welcome the seafarers, form friendships and make wonderful memories.”
90% of world trade is transported by ship, bringing big business to ports like Sunderland. Yet, life for a modern seafarer can be dangerous and lonely, making the Sister’s work essential.
“I have seen so many things during my time in Sunderland,” said Sister Mary. “I react to need. Whether helping the men during the miner’s strike, the city’s homeless people or working at the Salvation Army, I have always reacted to visible need.
“That is what happened at the Port. I was asked by a good friend to consider helping the seafarers and I realised these people were arriving in a strange country, not knowing the language and with very little money. There was a need for Stella Maris.”
Sunderland’s docks are a far cry from her roots in rural Ireland.
In 1958, Sr. Scholastica entered the Sisters of Mercy Convent at aged 17; moving from the family farm in beautiful Galway, to the bright lights of a busy, coastal city in North East England.
“My move from Galway to Sunderland was a huge change – I was struck by the huge red brick buildings and the scale of industry here at the time. But I was also struck by the people.
“Sunderland presented me with opportunities to form life-long friendships while helping those struggling – from children, to the homeless. It’s wonderful to work with city residents and help them overcome sorrow and welcome joy into their life. Joy is a tremendous thing.”
The move away from Ireland was a huge upheaval for the teenager, but an enthusiastic determination to help people has driven her days serving the Catholic Church.
“I don’t waste a minute of any day,” Sr Scholastica said: “I make clothes, I do a lot of needlework making wedding dresses and habits, I used to cook dinner at Salvation Army. I am always busy.
“When I received my bus pass, the city opened up to me and I could connect with my many missions of mercy. I was so excited – I still think it’s brilliant!”
Sr. Scholastica is grateful to her friends from all walks of life who dedicated their time and support to Stella Maris Sunderland.
She said: “From those who knit woolly hats, to those who installed the internet – the help is immeasurable. People from all walks of life, influenced by numerous faiths, have combined to facilitate my work. For this I am truly grateful.”
Port of Sunderland Director, Matthew Hunt, said: “Sister Scholastica is a one-off – a tireless worker, a constant support and a passionate city ambassador. We’re incredibly lucky and grateful to have her as part of the Port’s team
“She has turned Stella Maris into a haven for seafarers and it’s a truly heart-warming sight to see her marching along the Port Quays. Her efforts never fail to impress the crews and have made her a popular fixture at the Port.”
Cllr Mel Speding, Cabinet Secretary at Sunderland City Council, said: “The work of Sister Scholastica at the Port sums up our city and its intentions. As an Age Friendly City, we ensure people of all ages feel welcomed and included.
“Sister greets seafarers from around the world, and shows them that she is as tech savvy as the next. There is a wonderful message of warmth and welcome being extended from Stella Maris Sunderland.”
Sister Scholastica’s joy and warmth can be felt a nautical mile away. She will continue to proudly welcome seafarers to the city of Sunderland for years to come.
Donations of warm clothing would be gratefully received, along with any toiletries packs, socks and warm “thinsulated” woolly hats. To donate, please contact Sister Scholastica at: firstname.lastname@example.org