Diocese of Lake Charles
LAKE CHARLES — More than 60 years ago, a priest saw a need to minister to people of the sea visiting the Port of Lake Charles. It was that love of welcoming a stranger, the love to care for those far from home that led to what is known today as the Stella Maris Seafarers Center in the Diocese of Lake Charles.
The Seafarers Center will celebrate its 60th Anniversary with a Mass of Celebration at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday, April 19, 2022, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 935 Bilbo Street. The Most Reverend Glen John Provost, Bishop of Lake Charles, will officiate.
“The ministry started with Father Theodore Hassink as the first port chaplain in 1956 who ministered from his car and home until the Center was established in 1962,” said Deacon Patrick Lapoint, Sr., serving in his 21st year as director. Father Hassink, who was a priest in the Diocese of Lafayette and serving in Lake Charles, carried out his role as chaplain until 1970.
The Seafarers Center is part of the worldwide organization Stella Maris, formerly known as Apostleship of the Sea. The Vatican announced the name change on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the apostolate that was established in Glasgow, Scotland in October 1920 to support seafarers in need.
Directors in the Diocese of Lake Charles over the past 60 years include:
- 1962-1978: Herman C. Verkruissen
- 1978-1987: William “Bill” A. Leonard
- 1987-1990: Robert Casey
- 1990-1999: Patrick Broussard
- 1999-2001: Archie Thomas
- 2001-present: Patrick A. Lapoint, Sr.
“Our mission is to welcome all seafarers to Lake Charles; the Church going to them,” Deacon Lapoint explained about the Catholic port ministry that also serves the Calcasieu Ship Channel area.
Stella Maris, through the chaplain, represents the local bishop and serves as the mariners’ minister and friend, always having their best interest at heart.
In addition to meeting spiritual needs of the ship crew — such as Mass, Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and even Funeral Rites — the Seafarers Center also works to provide counseling, medical assistance, ensure a safe work environment, just contracts, and communication with loved ones.
Most seafarers are away from home six to 10 months at a time. For some it is their choice, but for others, it is the only means of financial support for their families.
Deacon Lapoint recalled an incident that occurred within two months of his being hired as director that still sticks in his mind nearly 21 years later.
“I had driven two Filipinos to go shopping, and when I arrived to pick them up, only one of them was waiting for me. When I asked where his partner was, he informed me he was in the hospital. The sailor had suffered a brain aneurism and died later the same night,” Lapoint said.
“What complicated matters is that the death happened at the beginning of September 2001, and the September 11 terror attacks happened less than two weeks later,” he continued. “The body could not be returned to the family until the end of October. I stayed in touch with the family for a year making sure they received all their insurance money.”
In most recent weeks, Deacon Lapoint, along with Associate Director Ray Fontenot, has been visiting ships with Ukrainians and Russians on board. When their contracts end, they must figure out how they are getting back home because of the difficulties getting flights amid the war in Ukraine.
“The ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) is working on a plan. We listen to the concerns of the sailors,” Lapoint said. “I talked to a seafarer whose family is staying in a bunker. They are worried about their families, and there is nothing they can do. They do not know if they have a home to go back to. We just listen to them with compassion.”
In his role as port chaplain, Father Rommel Tolentino is reminded often of what it is like to be far from his homeland in the Philippines. Ministering to migrant workers and people of the sea is an opportunity to offer hope and joy.
“The Catholic Church is bigger than just my parish or our local diocese. The ministry of the Seafarers Center is to reassure those at sea that they are not forgotten by the Universal Church,” said Father Tolentino.
“Whenever I get requests to celebrate Mass on the ships, I know the sailors are always very happy and appreciative. To nourish their faith by offering Mass and prayer is so important because the strength of their faith in God can help them deal better with the many challenges and disappointments they face in relation to their work, their family, or their personal life,” he continued.
Since many seafarers are Filipinos, Father Tolentino said he always makes it a point to speak to them in Tagalog (a Central Philippine language) and sing Filipino hymns during Mass. “It makes them feel close to home,” he said.
Star of the Sea
Stella Maris is Latin for Star of the Sea, a title often given to the Virgin Mary under the title Our Lady. Deacon Lapoint credits the Blessed Virgin for guiding him to the Seafarers Center 25 years ago.
“Making rosaries is what led me to the Center and eventually as director. A friend of mine and I belonged to Our Lady’s Rosary Makers. I would make rosaries and he paid to ship them. A list was published every quarter of who needed rosaries and where to send them,” Lapoint recalled. “When the Seafarers Center in Lake Charles was listed in 1997, I told my friend I would just bring the rosaries to the Center myself.”
Deacon Lapoint admits he was not aware of the ministry before this point but started volunteering soon after learning about its purpose. Looking back, he said he can see God’s hand at work.
“I was making rosaries to share with people around the world and was led here through a request in a newsletter. That was God opening a door to get me to the Seafarers Center,” he said. “Once I saw what the ministry was about, it inspired me to start volunteering. It instilled a love for people from around the world who are at sea.”
The centennial of the Apostleship of the Sea was one of many highlights over the years for the Seafarers Center.
On October 3, 2020, Bishop Provost celebrated Mass in the Cathedral, followed by a Marian and Eucharistic Procession to the Lake Charles Civic Center Seawall and back to the Cathedral.
The event was quite an accomplishment considering Southwest Louisiana was picking up the pieces from Hurricane Laura, a catastrophic storm that struck just five weeks earlier, and Hurricane Delta that would make landfall in the same area six days later on October 9.
The Center also helped organize a tri-parish celebration in November of 2019, according to Father Tolentino.
“The Cathedral celebrated 150 years, while Sacred Heart of Jesus in Lake Charles and Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Sulphur were both marking 100 years. We had a beautiful boat procession around the Lake and called it a Fete-Dieu,” Tolentino said.
The community is incredibly supportive of the Seafarers Center, especially at Christmastime, Lapoint noted.
“Year round we collect prayer cards, rosaries, and medals to give to everyone on the ships, distributing upwards of a thousand a month. During the holiday season, we collect cards, pens, envelopes, socks, wool caps, and toiletries such as shampoo, shaving cream, deodorant, disposal razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, and washcloths” he said, noting that enough items are usually collected to make up 900 gift ditty bags. “The most we ever distributed one year was 1,200 bags.”
The donations usually come from area churches and organizations, but in 2021, Westlake Chemical sponsored a drive, marking the first time a local industry contributed to the Christmas project. Volunteers help with the packing and wrapping.
“For the past several years, volunteers from the Junior Catholic Daughters at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Lake Arthur assembled the bags. They can usually put together 300 bags in an hour,” said Lapoint.
“Our goal is to make sure we visit every ship at Christmastime, many years as much as 50 ships. It helps to make the holidays special for those who are so far from home. For the seafarers, you would think we gave them gold. Of all the compliments we get from the sailors, the biggest one is that the people in Lake Charles are so friendly,” Lapoint continued.
“This is a ministry, not a job. God is so good to us that he allows the Diocese to pay us so we can continue to do our work through this ministry of hospitality.”
Stella Maris Prayer
O Mary, Star of the Sea, light of every ocean, guide seafarers across all dark and stormy seas that they may reach the haven of peace and light prepared in Him who calmed the sea.
As we set forth upon the oceans of the world and cross the deserts of our time, show us, O Mary, the fruit of your womb, for without your Son, we are lost.
Pray that we will never fail on life’s journey, that in heart and mind, in word and deed, in days of turmoil and in days of calm, we will always look to Christ and say, “Who is that that even wind and sea obey him?”
Our Lady Star of the Sea, pray for us. Amen.
Pope Saint John Paul II