Catholicism and cargo ships: Galveston port chaplain ministers to ocean-bound

January 27, 2015

GALVESTON — In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls St. Peter out of his fishing boat and onto the water in faith. For Karen Parsons, OFS, however, her vocation called her to step onto a boat. A massive cargo ship, that is. 

But Parsons, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston Port Chaplain for Galveston and Texas City, almost didn't climb aboard. 

Gazing at a steep gangway ladder in the Port of Detroit, Parsons froze in fear. On one side of the gangway, the Detroit River lapped up against the dock. On the other side, some 40 feet up the ladder, curious sailors peered down from the ship at her. And inside, Parson's hesitancy and doubt grew. 

"I couldn't do it," Parsons recalled. "I was scared to death of water and scared to death of heights," which happen to be two things port chaplains encounter daily. But with encouragement from the chaplain who trained her, she silently prayed her way up the gangway and never looked back. 

Nearly 30 years later, Parsons helms the nonprofit, multi-denominational Galveston Seafarers Center (221 20th Street, Galveston) and serves the ports of Galveston and Texas City. A port chaplain and part of the Apostleship of the Sea, Parsons is supported by the Diocesan Services Fund as an outreach of the Archdiocese. 

One of four Archdiocesan port chaplains, Parsons offers "pastoral care to the men and women who come in on ships into the port (of Galveston), regardless of race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs." 

"We take care of everybody," Parsons said. "But if there are Catholics aboard, and there usually are, we make sure they have what they need for their faith growth, including Sacraments." 

The Center offers seafarers a place of refuge from life at sea. Located just off The Strand in Galveston and blocks away from the port docks, the center sports ping pong and pool tables for recreation, couches for relaxing and free wireless internet and laptops to contact family and friends back home. 

Technology advancements have changed how sailors keep in touch with loved ones, said Parsons. Writing letters, which take weeks to deliver halfway across the globe, has been replaced with video calling in real time. 

"The sailors light up when they're able to see their kids and wives again." 

In addition to a small supply of convenience store items, the Center houses a Chapel where the Mass is offered each Sunday. Inside a square room filled with chairs, next to a box overflowing with written petitions, a Tabernacle provides a Eucharistic presence at the Center. 

"The (sailors) love it. They'll come in and just sit in the quiet," said Parsons.

From an early age, Parsons knew she wanted to serve the Church. She grew up in Catholic schools, being taught by Franciscans. 

A small ad in her church bulletin caught her eye. Parishoners were invited to learn more about a ministry on the Detroit docks. The priest, who was passionate about taking care of those at sea, knew he could not successfully balance operating a parish, a soup kitchen and minister to sailors all at the same time. This was where the lay people could effectively evangelize outside of the pews, the priest said to Parsons. This humility inspired Parsons. 

Then after six weeks of ministry training classes, Parsons found her calling aboard the ships in Detroit. 

"I knew the people I was to serve in my life were going to be on big, scary pieces of metal that I had to climb to get to," Parsons said. 

"And somehow, God would give me the courage to do that every single day. And still, there are ladders that I see that I think, ‘Lord, you have to push me up this one.' Because when I think I got it, there's one that comes in that's rickety, or higher, hanging over the water more... I look up there and I see their faces looking at me, waiting for me. And if I walk away, what does that tell them? So I just push myself up the ladder." 
Since the rivers and seaway near Michigan freeze during the wintertime, Parsons eventually found that her part-time ministry needed to become year-round. 

When a full-time chaplaincy position opened up here in the Archdiocese, Parsons submitted her application. Father Rivers Patout, who was establishing the Houston International Seafarers Center at the time, called her down from Detroit and pushed her case. She credits Father Patout for his legacy of seafaring ministry and for teaching her many skills as a chaplain and as a person. Parsons also finds continued support in Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza and Daniel Cardinal DiNardo. 

This network of port chaplains is the strength of the Apostleship of the Sea, said Parsons. 

"This is an ecumenical ministry. We work with a lot of different denominations in this ministry, including other clergy and we meet together occasionally. If a ship passes through Galveston. If they have a ship that has loaded there (in Houston), but needs to stop in Galveston, they let me know."

This relationship has global strength as well, said Parsons. If a ship has to leave Galveston, and she can't completely resolve a sailor's issue, Parsons will notify the Seafarers Center at the ship's next port of call and let them know of the issue so they're prepared to help upon arrival. 
Parsons' nearly 30 years of ministering on the docks does not go unnoticed by sailors or the Vatican, either. 

Parsons was awarded the US Coast Guard's Public Service Commendation, then later was recognized by Rome and appointed regional coordinator for the Apostleship of the Sea for North America and the Caribbean Sea by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. She serves as the liaison for the Vatican and Sea Chaplains and is just one of two women on the council.

Sea chaplains navigate many realities, both physical and emotional, while ministering to sailors.

"Any day is different. I can never say, ‘A day will be like this,' because I won't find out until I get out there, meet them and find whose on the ships, and what they need," Parsons said. "You have to pray before you go.

"If someone gets hurt on the ship, we become their family and advocate in the hospital," Parsons said. "If someone gets in trouble, we're their jail visitor. It's all connected; life on board a ship is real life. Everything continues to happen in their families back home. A father will die or a child is born. There is all this stuff they have to deal with when they're thousands of miles away from home." 

When Typhoon Haiyan decimated the Philippines, which is home to many Filipino seafarers, Parsons helped sailors reconnect with family, pray for victims, arrange for deliverable supplies and coordinate financial aid. 

Her ministry as a port chaplain extends to the men and women involved with work at the port, as well. From security officials to dock workers, all are affected by the rough port life. 

Last Christmas, a dock worker fell to his death, prompting Parsons to immediately minister to other workers who knew the victim, and those who were near the tragic accident. 

"Eventually I'd stop over occasionally, checking on them and just listening to their stories," Parsons said. "We open ourselves up to the whole port. It's just an amazing thing." 

According to Parsons, her own family grew up at the Center. Her children would do their homework on the tables, much to the curiosity of the sailors around them. 

"Seafarers miss their families so much," said Parsons. Her children were the same ages as the sailors' children, at the time. "The seafarers would ask, ‘What are you learning? Do you like it? Do you need help?'," even offering their own tips and tricks on certain subjects like math. 

Parsons said she appreciated this because the seafarers taught her children to play ping pong and chess, eventually giving them a well-rounded view of the world. 

Inspired by St. Paul's letters to the faithful, Parsons' ministry extends beyond her work on the docks. 

"(St. Paul's) idea of keeping in contact with the Church through his letters, I took from day one," Parsons said. If there was ever a seafarer who was so vulnerable, shared deeply personal needs, she made sure to get an email or mailing address to keep in touch. Before Hurricane Ike, she had collected over 20,000 letters from sailors. Now, hundreds of uncounted but read-and-responded-to letters fill a large filing cabinet.

In addition to her continual training and Vatican appointed role, Parsons attends international conferences to gain skills and education from other chaplains at other ports. These travels not only help her improve her work as a chaplain, but give her the opportunity to draw another picture of a sailor's life at sea: the family back home. 

From Poland and Russia to the Philippines, this ministry of writing and conversation has allowed her to meet the wives, children and communities of the sailors she's helped at the Center in Galveston. 

When Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008, it destroyed Galveston Island. The storm brought in a 7 - 12 foot surge of water into the Center, taking Parsons' letters, supplies, and even the roof with it. The Center remained closed for three years, pushing Parsons to work out of her own car for a period of time while the Center was repaired. Eventually, the center reopened to serve the men and women at sea once again. 
But even after surviving Ike, the Galveston Seafarers Center continues to need a community of support.

"We can always use monetary donations to keep the doors open," said Parsons. The Center holds an annual gala and auction event to support operations beyond the DSF funds. In addition to full-size toiletries (shampoos, shaving creams, razors, etc.), The Center also accepts gently used clothing donations to stock a free clothing store offered to seafarers. Desired clothing includes jeans, shirts, work shirts, jackets, all in small to large sizes. 

"What a blessing this (ministry) has been for my family and for me," said Parsons. "And being able to work in the church? God knew where he needed me, and I was open to that call." Her work also inspired her to join the Third Order of St. Francis as a Secular Franciscan. 

In addition to speaking to schools and groups, these years of ministry have inspired Parsons to gather her experiences into book form. Recently, she published ‘Diary of a Port Chaplain: My Journey of Faith with Seafarers,' detailing her personal story as a port chaplain ministering to those at sea. 

To purchase the book or for more information about the nonprofit Galveston Seafarers Center, call 409-762-0026 or visit

Galveston Seafarers Center
Phone: 409-762-0026
Address: 221 20th Street, Galveston, Texas 77550