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Mindanao nuns answer distress calls from seafarers

Oblates of Notre Dame Sisters offer pastoral care as part of Catholic Church's Apostolate of the Sea

Mindanao nuns answer distress calls from seafarers

Melencio and Esterlita Cobeta pose for a photograph at their home in General Santos City in the southern Philippines. (Photo by Bong Sarmiento)

Bong Sarmiento, General Santos City
Philippines

April 9, 2018

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A group of nuns in on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao are on a maritime mission to help poor fisherfolk and other seafarers who drift their way.

The Oblates of Notre Dame Sisters have been on this mission since 2006 as part of the church's Apostleship of the Sea, sometimes known as Stella Maris.

The apostolate was established in Scotland in the early 20th century to provide pastoral care to seafarers.

In the Philippines, one the nuns' recent catches is Melencio Cobeta, a fisherman rescued from an Indonesian prison where he languished for a year.

In May 2016, Cobeta, the skipper of a fishing vessel, was arrested along with two dozen other Filipino fishermen for allegedly fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

His detention in North Sulawesi, about a day's voyage by boat from Mindanao, left his wife and three children in dire financial and emotional straits.

"It was a nightmare," the 49-year-old fisherman told ucanews.com. "We were forced to do hard labor like carrying rocks, cutting grass, and painting the prison facilities," he said.

Cobeta's wife, Esterlita, said her husband's imprisonment was "the greatest trial" the family has ever encountered.

"We sold our farm animals and our motorcycle so we could sustain ourselves while he was in jail," said Esterlita. She even had to borrow money from "loan sharks" to survive.

She also had to sell grilled bananas to earn about US$2 a day, a very small amount that helped the family live.

Desperate for help, the woman went to the religious sisters. The decision changed her life and facilitated her husband's return.

Oblate Sister Susan Bolanio, executive director of the congregation's Hesed Foundation, said aside from spiritual formation, her organization also offers pastoral and psychological support to fisherfolk.

Taken from an Old Testament word meaning "loving kindness," hesed describes how God relates to his people.

"We hold prayer studies with them to nurture their spiritual growth," said the nun who noted that many seafarers often stay at sea for months without hearing Mass.

"Often, commercial seafarers on a brief port stopover here request a Mass," Sister Susan told ucanews.com.

But aside from prayers and Masses, the nun and her colleagues aid fishermen, especially those in prison in Indonesia for illegal fishing.

In the past six years, they were able to assist in the repatriation of at least 400 fishermen, many of whom are poor and were abandoned by their employers.

With the help of the nuns, the bodies of at least two fishermen who died while in detention were brought home to Mindanao recently,

Fishermen stranded in foreign ports or even in Manila are repatriated with the help of sponsors, said Sister Susan.

"We look for people to pay their airfare so they can be reunited with their families," said the nun.

Esterlita could hardly contain her emotions while recounting how the nuns helped her.

"They offered us hope during dark episodes of our lives," she said, adding that "knowing that somebody was helping gave us the strength to overcome the ordeal."

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