Almost 87 years old, Father Mario Balbi no longer drives a car.
But the chaplain at the Stella Maris Chapel in Port Newark still makes his daily rounds of the harbor, scrambling up ladders – if not as spry as a young sailor, then with the same determination – a lively, energetic man who has been in love with the sea all his life, and has for the last 11 years been part of a yearly ritual during the last Friday in June of blessing the fleet.
“I remember 11 years ago, he walked into my office and asked if we could do this, so we did,” said Gary Whyte, director of northeastern operations for Ecuador Line, during a brief ceremony that marked the beginning of this year’s blessing.
Although each year Balbi is joined by other clergy, this year he had the privilege of being joined by Archbishop Peter L. Gerety and his aide, Monsignor Francis R. Seymour, who sailed the harbor onboard a tugboat helping to cast prayers and holy water over the unloading freighters.
Balbi, who is also the author of a book called “The Unpublished Don Bosco” spends up to 70 hours a week, not just meeting and greeting the crews of incoming ships, but taking an interest in the lives of those who come into his parish – which just happens to stretch along the coast of Newark Bay from Newark to Elizabeth and Staten Island.
During his blessing, Balbi frequently shouted out to crews as the tugboat paused to give each ship its blessing and the crews who have come to know, respect and even love him, let the ship horns bellow in answer.
Balbi told reporters who documented each mile of the trip from ship to ship that sailors are often lonely because they are away from their homes and families for most of the year, and he has become a champion for those who come into Newark Bay. Balbi is also a long way from Brazil and the Amazon rainforest where he grew up, and while his village was nearly a thousand miles from the sea, he frequently greeted the packet boats that sailed up the river monthly bringing supplies.
Ordained in 1949, Balbi didn’t immediately become the “apostle to seafarers” as he is sometimes called, but spent nearly two decades teaching literature, Latin and French.
In 1969, after seeking a change of duties, Balbi was assigned to the Port of Savannah in Georgia, where for the next 20 years he conducted a labor of love, serving as spiritual guide to sailors whose ships eased into his port.
Then in 1990, when other men might have retired, Balbi took an assignment at Stella Maris, Seaman’s Church, looking out for the souls of sailors coming and going from Port Newark and Howland Hook Marine Terminal, the way he had those in the Port of Savannah, picking up where he had left off with his yearly ritual of blessing the ships at harbor each year.
“He can still climb up and down those ladders,” said Rev. Dan Hogan, a minister at Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, who serves as chaplain to the longshoreman’s union and has worked in Port Newark for 47 years.
A new view of Bayonne
The blessing of the fleet was made possible partly because of the donation of the tugboat by Moran Towing and Transportation company, which provides tugboat services not only to New York Harbor, but with a fleet of 95 tugboats from New England to Texas, making it the largest provider on the East and Gulf coasts.
Steered by Capt. Vincent Parker, the tugboat brought the holy men including Rabbi Michael Melneck, journeyed sought, passing the former Texaco site in Bayonne, as well as Bayonne Bridge and Shooter’s Island to eventually arrive at the New York Container Terminal on Staten Island where Whyte had arranged for a fireboat show complete with tied red and blue water spouts.
Between ships, Gerety – who turns 94 in mid July – stared out at the harbor sights, and laughed about his aide, who was born and raised in Bayonne.
“All he talks about is Bayonne,” the archbishop laughed. “That’s all I ever get out of him, talk about his hometown.”
Seymour was a resident of Bayonne until he was ordained as a priest in 1963. He lived across the street from St. Mary’s, Star of the Sea, the oldest church in Bayonne, and for a time he even delivered newspapers in his hometown.
“I still have family in Bayonne and return there once a week to see them,” he said.
Seymour, who serves as Gerety’s secretary, also serves at St. Cecilia Church in Kearny.
Although this was Seymour’s first view of Bayonne from the Newark Bay, he said he has seen Bayonne’s eastern shores as ferries frequently tread those waters.
Bayonne Bridge faces an uncertain future
As the tug nears Bayonne Bridge, two dock men talk about the port and the problems the bridge poses for the future of the harbor.
Rev. Mark P Gardner is a relative newcomer to Port Newark, spending the better part of the year making his living driving a forklift and other activities from one end of the port to the other. A longshoreman from ILA 1233, he grins a little at the mention of Tom Cruise – who recently played the part of a Port Newark longshoreman in Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.”
Cruise’s scenes depicting his work at the port, however, were filmed at Red Hook Brooklyn yards, where fellow longshoremen operated the cranes that lifted containers from the ships, said Buddy Smith, a longshoreman who has spent the last 29 years working throughout the Newark Bay complex.
Both men talk about the changes they are seeing, the expansion of the port and its facilities.
“We are the largest – maybe the only – growing industry in the Northeast,” Smith said, looking out at new cranes that have been installed near the Newark-Elizabeth border on Newark Bay designed to handle freight from the new fleets of cargo ships that dwarf in size many of the existing ships.
Unfortunately, Smith noted, these new ships cannot sail under the Bayonne Bridge, and though the Army Corps of Engineering is dredging the Kill van Kull, the bridge still poses an obstacle – a matter that may see the reconstruction of the bridge in the near future. Many of the 5,000 ships that pass under the bridge every year find the bridge too low, delaying entry for the lowest tide so as to increase the clearance.
Bayonne Bridge has a clearance at most of 151 feet high. Most new super-sized ships when compacted are 145 feet high, too close to calculate for safe passage. Port officials believe the bridge will either need to be elevated or replaced with a high bridge so that the estimated increase to 10,000 ships per year can be accomplished.
In reflecting on their trade both men talk about life on the harbor, about the strange mix of goods they take in, from zoo animals to pharmaceuticals, although they also note that far less cargo leaves these ports than comes in.
“Most of the ships come in 100 percent full, and leave less than half full,” Smith said, giving a shoreside view of the trade deficit national leaders frequently talk about.
While this port unloads massive numbers of cars and other manufactured goods, the port’s biggest exports are generally scrap metal and rags.
Al Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.