Montreal’s wharf and port facilities at the end of the 1800’s were haphazard and temporary. Ships docked alongside piers and sheds that were created for the season and then the lumber used in their construction was auctioned off in the fall before ice built up along the shore line. It was a disorderly and rough district. In 1862, the protestant Montreal Sailors’ Institute (MSI) was established for the “material, social, moral and spiritual welfare of seamen temporarily in the port of Montreal". Gentlemen from the Catholic Truth Society decided that something had to be done to keep Catholic seamen from the clutches of the protestants and so, in 1893, the first ‘modern’ facility for Roman Catholic seafarers in the world was opened, the Catholic Sailors’ Club (CSC). Both organisations worked side by side on behalf of the visiting seafarer, who was, according to reports, “prey to the keepers of drink dens, crimps, shanghaiers and the harpies who joined them in taking his money”. In 1914, the managers of both institutes spent a week at Quebec supervising the identification of dead seamen as a result of the “Empress of Ireland” disaster, which sank off Rimouski, also directing the public funeral for the victims. They continued to cooperate during the Great War, boosting morale and, during the flu epidemic of 1918, the CSC was fitted up as a general marine emergency and harbour hospital while the MSI became a home for all seafarers. The concerts held at the Montreal institutions were among the most famous sailor gatherings in the world and for three years, during the Second World War, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a weekly series of programmes called ‘The Merchant Navy Show’ which originated from the MSI. The two organisations – the MSI and the CSC - amalgamated in 1968 to become ‘Mariners’ House of Montreal’.
Mariners’ House of Montreal is a home away from home for some 13,000 seafarers annually. The centre is open seven days a week from 1400 hours to 2300 hours weekdays and from 1500 hours on weekends. Our two vans travel the 25km of the port every day to visit ships and to bring crew members to the centre, then return them at the end of the evening. While at the facility, seafarers can place local and overseas calls, use Internet facilities, send money home to their families, exchange foreign currency, mail letters and pick up tourist information. While Mariners’ House is non-denominational, we will cater to the seafarers’ spiritual needs upon request and have a chapel on our premises and chaplains for counselling. In winter, warm clothing is donated to needy seafarers, who often arrive clad in sandals and cotton shirts. The annual Christmas Eve party ensures that seafarers share in the season’s celebrations. Approximately 1,700 gifts are given to those in attendance and to others on vessels scheduled to spend Christmas at sea. Seafarers can also choose from a variety of recreational activities including television, pool, table tennis, air hockey and Karaoke. Books, magazines and a movie library are at their disposal. The ‘Sea Chest’ store sells refreshments, candy, toiletries and souvenirs. And free coffee is always available!
Historically, the majority of ships were crewed by men from the so-called ‘traditional’ seafaring nations, most of whom shared the same beliefs and values and came from similar economic backgrounds. As the steamship business became increasingly competitive throughout the world, the registry of many ships was transferred to flags of convenience. In addition to offering tax breaks, this practice enabled owners to employ seafarers, often from underdeveloped nations, whose demands were much less than those of their counterparts in the developed world. The result is that vessels crewed by a wide variety of seamen from vastly different economic, cultural and religious backgrounds became the rule rather than the exception. Most mariners today are foreign nationals – men and women from over 70 countries use our services. These hard working people leave their families behind for up to a year at a time in order to support them. Besides being lonely and disoriented so far from home, seafarers are nearly invisible in the society they serve. This changing environment has had a profound effect on our missions. Where previously we dealt with many vessels, large crews and predominantly Christian seamen, today we are faced with fewer ships and small, multinational crews of mixed religions. Given the special needs and circumstances of many of the seafarers crewing today’s ships, there is a greater requirement than ever for the continued existence of the missions. Many of today’s seafarers, especially those from underdeveloped nations, have needs that go beyond the desire for companionship, recreation and a break from routine. Some may have complaints about conditions on board, while others may encounter social or religious discrimination, both ashore and afloat. The seafarers’ club is just as necessary today in all ports of the world to offer a friendly haven and practical assistance.