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Sister is Santa to mariners

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Bernie Farrelly, Sr Mary Leahy, Michael Kelly and Myron Fernandes with their Christmas hampers. Photos: Ian Ackerman/Daily Cargo News

Seafarers do it tough but nautical nun steps in to make a difference

A SYDNEY sister is working around the clock delivering a little bit of Christmas cheer to the thousands of exhausted international seafarers arriving at Port Botany throughout the festive season.

Around 90 per cent of goods imported into Australia arrive by ship – many of those to be given as gifts this Christmas – so Sr Mary Leahy is letting seafarers know they are not forgotten at traditionally one of the loneliest times of the year for those who earn a living on the sea.

Known as the “angel of Sydney’s waterfront”, Sr Mary has put together more than 2000 Christmas hampers filled with chocolate and practical items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant as well as a hand-written card by dock workers and their families.

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The nautical nun said most seafarers are at sea for at least 12 months at a time, in confined spaces and away from families and loved ones, so it’s a way of acknowledging their vital and tireless work.

“The hampers are our way to give back to people who are often treated unjustly and sometimes vulnerable, it really is an opportunity to say thanks,” she said.

“It encourages them to have a bit of a party, no matter what their background.

Some of the gifts from the 2021 Christmas seafarer hampers. Photo: Ian Ackerman/Daily Cargo News

“Seafarers are still often trapped onboard well over their contracts, and in some cases haven’t seen loved ones for up to three years. Sadly today, there is a growing understanding that modern slavery is a reality for many of them.

“Sydney is one of the very few ports in the world where the maritime industry recognises that without seafarers there wouldn’t be an industry.

“Chaplains like myself do the best we can but I believe the welfare of seafarers should be a concern for the industry to respond to more than just churches.”The Josephite nun has spent the past 20 years visiting international ships that arrive at Port Botany, quite often the only non-crew member seen for months.

Chaplains like myself do the best we can, but I believe the welfare of seafarers should be a concern for the industry to respond to more than just churches.”
Sr Mary Leahy

She provides general information about access to facilities ashore, communication with loved ones, wage and abuse issues, loneliness, isolation, illness, mental health issues, spiritual care and attending court hearings.

Awarded an Order of Australia medal in recognition for her many years of service with the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea, she is very content with her calling despite the often-rough waters.

“In 20 years, I think I’ve seen it all, nothing surprises me anymore which is probably why I’m so trusted,” she said. “Australian seamen have a strong union and pretty good working conditions but for those from other countries there are usually no unions and few protections.

“The men are very vulnerable to exploitation. Many are so grateful just to have a job that they are reluctant to speak out for fear of losing it, despite suffering physical, emotional and in some instances sexual abuse.

“Being able to help these people every day is a privilege and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

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