RATHER strangely, there are no maritime pictures on the walls inside the imposing Newcastle's Mission to Seafarers building in Hannell Street, Wickham.
Despite this anomaly, this waterfront institution, first based at Stockton, has revolved around sailors in port for the past 150 years
And yet, only down the road is the Albion Hotel where a collection of port pictures decorate walls, giving a distinct atmosphere of a 200-year seafaring city.
But you get the impression that having no seascape sketches or ocean photographs on the walls of Newcastle's Mission to Seafarers (formerly the Missions to Seamen) is a deliberate act; a move designed to create an alternative world away from their normal home -the world's oceans - for most years of their working lives.
Like Jonah, I've just entered the maw of this venerable institution and feel like I've stepped back in time into a hidden world, unknown to most.
Newcastle's Mission to Seafarers (MTS), the missionary arm of the Anglican Church, is a volunteer organisation which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, but now finds it has to constantly adapt in these challenging, post-COVID times.
Every year, the mission tends to the practical welfare and spiritual needs of seamen on more than 2200 ships visiting port.
For while the cargoes carried on the vessels bring a great economic benefit to Newcastle, the ship's crews, often poor foreign seaman, are largely invisible, strangers in a strange land.
So, it's here the MTS is most needed, providing facilities where seafarers can relax away from their ships, celebrate birthdays, buy small essentials and keep in touch with their families overseas.
In truth, they can't really afford to go anywhere else but the Mission to Seafarers.
But now, the mission, dating from 1944, needs the help of Novocastrians in return.
Garry Dodd, the port's senior chaplain, says the mission is urgently seeking helpers to assist its welfare operation.
"We're desperate for volunteers," Father Dodd a chaplain for the past 15 years, says.
"We've gone down from 60 on the roster to 12."
Given today's bigger ships needing fewer crew with a much faster turnaround for ships in port these days, demand for its services has dropped so volunteer numbers have gradually dwindled.
It's a far cry from the hectic days of yesteryear.
A few days before Christmas in 1981, about 42 ships were waiting offshore to load inside Newcastle Harbour with another 18 booked to arrive soon.
"There used to be 15,000 seafarers visiting our mission pre-COVID, but that has dropped now to about 5000 visitors," Fr Dodd says.
"We used to also serve 100 meals here every week.
One seafarer I know hadn't been ashore for three years. His contract kept being extended. He saw the world, but not home.- Father Garry Dodd
"The ships often come in empty, de-ballasted from deep water. Owners want to load quickly and leave.
"This can also mean restricted shore leave for crews as the tides don't wait.
"The ships can be manned by Filipinos, Chinese or Indian and others.
"I estimate about 17 per cent are either Ukrainian or Russians who are restricted by having little money to buy things.
"AB's (able-bodied) seamen are paid only $US15 a day and by law they are required to send the majority of their income home," Fr Dodd says.
"Sometimes these seamen are 11 months a year at sea, with then a month off.
"But with COVID came sudden changes. One-year at sea contracts were extended.
"One seafarer I know hadn't been ashore for three years.
His contract kept being extended.
"He saw the world, but not home.
"And there's a lot of social pressure in places like the Philippines to go to sea, to get money.
"The populations over there are often very poor.
"Overseas service will bring much needed money back home," Fr Dodd says.
"In places like the Philippines there can be 200 maritime institutions, or schools, like TAFE, teaching future sailors what to do, but only 10 per cent of trainees will get jobs.
"And while some places have good facilities, others will have a (training) pool where the water (to train in) is green. I know, I've been over there," he said.
And today's world at the Hannell Street mission is very different to the past, while still providing friendship to strangers, comforting those in distress, or visiting any seafarer left in a foreign hospital.
"Needs here change. We used to have 15 computers, now we have one. Seafarers now use cell phones or buy phone cards instead to contact loved ones overseas.
"Look around here inside today. That space above your head once used to house a projector to screen movies," Fr Dodd revealed.
"And this big timber floor was once regarded as the best sprung dance floor in Newcastle. I've been told by women visitors, 'this is the place where I first met my husband. He was a seaman'. You mightn't believe this today, but that's the way it once was."
Another of the mission's features is a small chapel. And outside of it, mounted on a tall wooden stand, is an unusual baptismal font, a truly historic Newcastle maritime relic.
And it's the real reason I initially dropped into the institute. It's actually an upturned ship's bell, now holding holy water. It was recovered 49 years ago from the famous Norwegian bulk carrier Sygna that ran aground in Stockton Bight about 2am on May 26, 1974, during a cyclone.
The ship's 30 crew members were all rescued by helicopter and the mission was soon able to supply them with dry clothing and enable them to contact their families concerned about their safety. (Half of the ship was salvaged and the rusting remainder only recently disappeared beneath ocean breakers north of Stockton.)
In recognition of the humanitarian work, Sygna Captain Ingolf Lunde donated the ship's bell to the mission on August 26, 1974.
Fr Dodd says that at the mission, and particularly inside the chapel, he simply sees himself as a someone representing God, a symbol to whatever an individual sailor's religious beliefs might be.
"There are a lot of world cultures and religions. We are only one. We are here to listen compassionately and provide care," he says.
In so doing, the Anglican mission works alongside the similar Catholic welfare arm of Stella Maris (or 'Star of the Sea). Such partnerships now operate in up to 230 ports around the world.
But now Fr Dodd faces another challenge to the ministry. He's been trying to erect a neon sign outside to make his site more publicly visible, but without success.
"And yet down the road an older building, the Albion hotel, (from 1922) is allowed to have an illuminated sign. Our building though was apparently designed by a famous Newcastle architect. Newcastle City Council must think a new advertising sign might detract from the building's history," Fr Dodd says.
Wickham's Mission to Seafarers building, opened on April 28, 1944, was designed by architect Archer Cox Castleden. He was also a member of the mission's executive committee for seven years.
He died on August 13, 1944, less than four months after the new building opened to welcome seamen.
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