Union Veterans Dub Josephite Sister "True Working Class Hero"

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
8 Mar 2012

Sr Mary Leahy says being
Chaplain to Seafarers is a
privilege and a joy.
Picture courtesy
the Catholic Weekly

Irish-born Josephite, Sister Mary Leahy will have no problem finding somewhere to put the Order of Australia Medal she was awarded earlier this year in recognition of her 20 years service with the Archdiocese of Sydney's Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea as chaplain to seafarers at the Port of Botany.

Presented with a surprise gift of a beautifully crafted jewellery box last week from a group of retired wharfies who are veteran members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), she says she was overwhelmed and delighted. She was also touched by the inscription across the box which said: to a "True Working Class Hero."

"I certainly I have never considered myself a hero but I am charmed with the gift. I've never had a jewellery box before and this one is gorgeous. I'll certainly keep my OAM in there and maybe even my ashes one day will go in there as well!" she says laughing.

Although awarded the OAM in January, Sr Mary will have to wait until May when a special presentation ceremony will be held at Government House in Sydney for recipients of this year's Australia Day honours.

Among those who will proudly watch as she receives her award will be her elder sister, Geraldine who is also a Josephite and as a teacher, is currently based in Wyoming on the Central Coast.

"Geraldine joined the Sisters of St Joseph and became a teacher. I followed in her footsteps and was professed as a Josephite in 1983 but instead of teaching, I studied nursing at St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst. Then several years later, I studied for a degree in Theology part time and in 1992, I was appointed chaplain at Botany," she explains.

Full of humour, kindness and down to earth practicality, Sr Mary says it is a great privilege to minister to seafarers, many of whom are lonely and isolated, and in desperate need of a friendly face.

"Usually they are in Sydney just 12 hours and although they are usually allowed to disembark, security restrictions since 9/11 mean they can't go far. They also have little money and are often very homesick."

Sister Mary Leahy,
Chaplain to the Port
of Botany

Sr Mary has got to know many of today's multi-cultural crews over the years and is always ready to listen as they talk and tell her their troubles. She offers them comfort and strength and also practical help in terms of clothes and magazines.

"Often they apply for the job wearing their best clothes but that is all they have with them, so donations of clothes are always needed and they love magazines. Even when they don't speak English a magazine is a great distraction and something they really enjoy."

Sr Mary is well known throughout the Port not only by the captains and multicultural crews of containerships, tankers and cargo vessels that regularly dock there, but by the port's stevedores and maritime workers.

"I love what I do," she says but admits she was overwhelmed and humbled not only by her Australia Day Honour but also by the surprise gift given to her at last week's national conference of the MUA.

"As well as the national conference, the union was also commemorating its 140th anniversary and along with many people, I was invited to the celebratory dinner. And it was during that evening one of the retired wharfies gave me the lovely jewellery box. It wasn't a formal presentation or anything like that. I have just been part of their lives and they mine for so many years," she says.

Port Botany where Sr Mary Leahy offers pastoral
and practical support

With a smile she decides the gift "might be in recognition of the OAM bit." Then laughing says: "Whatever the reason, it was just lovely and I love them to bits."

The Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea office from where Sr Mary works is housed at the Sydney Seafarers' Centre Botany, which is also home to the Sydney Port Welfare Committee and the International Transport Federation, which represents more than 600 trade unions from 150 countries dedicated to protecting transport workers including seafarers worldwide.

"Australian seamen have a strong union and generally, very good working conditions. But for those from other countries there are usually no unions and few protections. These men are very vulnerable and many are so grateful to have as job, they are afraid to speak out for fear of losing it, despite suffering physical, emotional and in some instances, sexual abuse."

Sr Mary does what she can to give these men support, help, comfort and pastoral care. She also frequently speaks out on their behalf and liases with seafarer chaplaincies and other organisations for seamen worldwide.

To donate much-needed clothes or magazines for the seafarers Sr Mary helps and supports, contact her by email at