Catholic Herald Staff
Fishing boats, ships, sailboats and all manner of watercraft are invited to the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony Sunday, July 20, in Superior.
The Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers is hosting the service during the Lake Superior Day Festival. The ceremony will take place at 1:15 p.m. in the Barker’s Island Pavilion and Superior Bay.
“We’re praying for the safety of the people,” explained Fr. Leon Flaherty, a retired priest of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. “It’s a combination of prayers, Scripture reading, Old Testament, New Testament and blessing.”
Parishioners at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, may recall that Fr. Flaherty was assisting pastor there in the early 2000s. Now in his “active retirement” in Superior, Fr. Flaherty continues to help out at the cathedral and volunteer with the ship ministry, among other things.
The Twin Ports Ministry also holds a Blessing of the Port service in March. In its inaugural year, the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony didn’t hook many vessels; he thinks choppy waters may have been a deterrent.
“I think we had three boats come out,” he said. “We’ll see what we get this year.”
Fr. Flaherty hopes better publicity and cooperative weather will draw more boats to the bay.
“Sometimes it takes a good five years to get things rolling,” he added.
The Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers is an ecumenical effort with roots in a 1960s grain millers’ strike. When grain stopped flowing out of the harbor, hundreds of mariners were anchored, along with their cargo ships, in an unfamiliar port.
With the support of his congregation, a German-born, multilingual Lutheran minister from Duluth began visiting ships, organizing a free shuttle service for seafarers, bringing them books and magazines and more.
The strike ended, but the ministry did not; in 1969, the permanent Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers was established. The organization is headquartered in a former rectory in Duluth, where sailors can play ping pong, pray in the chapel, have a snack or watch television.
Twin Ports Ministry still provides sailors with shuttle rides to churches, shopping centers, medical clinics and other community services, as well as wireless internet access and cell phones while ships are in port, relaxation time at The Seafarers Center, and other amenities.
Many workers on the “salties,” the saltwater ships traveling from the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence Seaway, are from the Far East, according to Fr. Flaherty. Although the captains are wealthy, the crew workers are usually poor, so ministry volunteers offer them donations of clothing, personal care items and, around the holidays, Christmas gifts.
It’s a hard life for sailors, Fr. Flaherty said. They are away from their families most of the year, and the job can be dangerous.
“Some of those salties are kind of small … 400 feet. I can’t imagine going over the ocean in that,” he added.
Ministry volunteers visit every saltie that comes in and, when they can, the larger freshwater “lakers” that travel the Great Lakes. Sometimes three or four salties are docked at a time, Fr. Flaherty said. The number of ocean-going vessels they see over the course of one season depends on the grain harvest in Europe and Russia.
Many of the saltwater cargo ships are dropping off foreign-made wind turbine parts and leaving with grains, he said. He predicts political tensions with Russia could affect this year’s grain market.
Although Fr. Flaherty has been active with the Twin Ports Ministry for several years, he says local Protestant congregations are more involved in making winter outerwear and donating items for mariners.
“I think maybe we should make a bigger push to do that,” he added.