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'Unsung Heroes': The Nun And Pilot Bringing Christmas To Seafarers

On Christmas morning, one thousand seafarers will open up a very special care package, put together by a group of dedicated Australians.

Sister Mary Leahy has become a familiar face around the ports of NSW since she first started working as their Catholic Chaplain, 26 years ago.

Her job is one that appears relatively simple, but means much more to the thousands of seafarers who dock onto our shores every year.

Since 1992, Leahy has traveled tirelessly to the ports nearly everyday, meeting seafarers from all over the world, who briefly stop to unload cargo. Many have spent several months away from their families.

Michael Kelly & Sister Mary. IMAGE: supplied

Leahy believes every one of them has a story to share and sometimes they just need someone to listen.

She also helps them if they run into trouble while on land -- and says its about community care,  irrespective of their religious beliefs.

This year, she has partnered with marine pilot Michael Kelly, the Port Authority of NSW and other industry members. Together, they will bring Christmas cheer to the international vessels docking at ports in Sydney.

One thousand bags will be distributed to seafarers in the coming weeks. IMAGE: supplied

The 1000 care packages will include chocolate, biscuits, a toothbrush and socks.

“It’s small stuff but the gifts are a symbol of something far greater,” Leahy said.

She said that giving a gift reminds seafarers people care for them, no matter the difficulties and isolation they face on board.

Kelly said after 10 months at sea, everyday items like a new toothbrush become a necessity.

10 daily witnessed the moment some of these packages were first handed over to a Danish ship captain and his crew on board the ship Olivia Maersk on Wednesday.

The 250-metre long vessel is home to 20 crew members, transporting hundreds of containers around the world.

The Olivia Maersk docked in the early hours of Wednesday and was off again by night.

Captain Dan Rasmussen told 10 daily they were stopping in Sydney for less than a day.

He explained his crew was made up of sailors from the Philippines, Denmark, Ukraine, Poland and Thailand and they will open their packages on Christmas.

"It will be like the United Nations celebrating Christmas out here," he joked.

Accepting the care packages, Captain Rasmussen said it was a touching initiative, adding that it would allow the crew to feel the Christmas spirit.

Sister Mary hands over a package to the ship's engineer.

He said he was also in the process of looking at their travel calendar to see where he could fit in a proper Christmas dinner for his crew.

Asked how it felt to hand over the packages, Leahy told 10 daily; "it feels fantastic."

"This is truly what it's about."

Michael Kelly has been working at the Port Authority for just over a decade, but has been a seafarer from a young age.

READ MORE: Neighborhood Celebrates Christmas Early For Two-Year-Old Boy Dying Of Brain Cancer 

"I remember the first time I got on a ship, I was 20, and it was just five days out from Christmas," Kelly, who came up with the care package project about a month ago, told 10 daily.

"By the fourth day I was sick of it, I just wanted to go home."

He described how his mother had wrapped him a Christmas present to open on the day. It was board-shorts and a t-shirt.

"I wore them every day after that for four months, I will never forget it."

Michael Kelly chats with Captain Dan Rasmussen

Kelly is working on several other initiatives to make seafarer's transfers in Australia easier, including the introduction of free wifi around the Botany port.

Captain Rasmussen said while it seems simple, access to wifi would be a game-changer for crews, giving them the ability to connect with loved ones back home.

CEO of Ports Australia Mike Gallacher said Kelly and Leahy were the "unsung heroes" of the ports."A lot of these sailors live lonely challenging lives away from their families and loved ones," Gallacher told 10 daily.

 Leahy said she hoped the initiative would be a catalyst for other ports in Australia and overseas.

"Maybe it will be just the thing to get other people up and going... not just for Christmas but to continue the effort during the year."

Featured image: supplied 

Contact the author vgerova@networkten.com.au