Houston International Seafarers’ Center: Keeping Stride with the Needs of Modern Seafarers

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By Christine Schlenker, GHPB

In early 2017, the Houston International Seafarers’ Center (HISC) will take up residence in its new home just half a mile down the road. The Seafarers’ Center will join the current Printoccupants, the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), at 9650 High Level Road, one of the first buildings visitors see as they enter the Port of Houston Authority property at the Turning Basin. The Seafarers’ Center brings with it a legacy of over 40 years of service at the Howard T. Tellepsen Center as the first ecumenical seafarers’ center in the U.S. As the faces and needs of the seafarers have changed over the decades, the role of the Seafarers’ Center, too, has shifted, but the mission has remained fast: to minister to seafarers and to provide them with a home away from home.

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A Texas Catholic Herald clipping from January 26, 1973 detailing the dedication of the opening of the original Houston International Seafarers’ Center.

The Seafarers’ Center, known as the Seamen’s Center until 2006, started in 1968 – the brainchild of three forward-thinking leaders in faith communities. During the 1960s, the area surrounding the Port of Houston was the embodiment of television dock portrayals: unsafe and rife with unsavory characters. Some seafarers aided the bad community, while others were simply young men pulled into the fray. The needs of the seafarers were not well understood, and, as Howard T. Tellepsen pointed out, “the Port’s geographical isolation from points of interest in Houston and from downtown,” meant that the issue was remote to most Houstonians.

 Most visiting seafarers were primarily young European men who wanted to spend a few years traveling the world before settling into a career in their home countries.  Fr. Rivers Patout, Rev. Taft Lyon, and Rev. Sam Duree knew that better things were possible for Houston. The group established the HISC to provide seafarers with a safe destination for entertainment and the ministry they missed while being away from home so much. For the first year the staff worked out of trailers, but the center took on a larger role once the rest of the maritime community began supporting the humanitarian mission. In late 1969, the Port of Houston Authority, known then as the Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District, and under the chairmanship of Howard T. Tellepsen, signed a 50-year lease agreement with the HISC for property to house the future center.  For nearly eight acres within a short walk of the City Docks, the Port Authority charged the HISC a mere $1 per year for the lease.

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The heated swimming pool was added behind the HISC building along with a soccer field and a track for the seafarers to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Construction began shortly thereafter, as funds allowed, and continued for nearly three years.  The February 1973 Port of Houston Magazine, describing the construction process, said, “Pledges and donations first allowed a soccer field, then a running track, then a swimming pool and some temporary mobile huts strung together for inside activities. Finally, the striking and specially designed brick, glass and steel building…was built.” The board of the Seafarers’ Center conducted a major campaign to fund the $1.2 million facility, equivalent to $7.8 million in 2016 dollars, but donations did not roll in fast enough to move the project forward. Howard T. Tellepsen, the second-generation owner of Tellepsen Construction Company which was the contractor for the project, was so confident that the port community would support the Seafarers’ Center that Tellepsen started on the facility before the funds to pay for it were secured. The port community, of course, quickly saw the value of the Seafarers’ Center and generously donated the money needed to finish it.

A key advocate and patroness of the Seafarers’ Center was Jane Blaffer Owen, renowned Houston philanthropist and daughter of one of the Humble Oil Company founders, Robert Blaffer, brought the message of the Seafarers’ Center outside of the confines of the port. In appreciation, the HISC chapel was named for her.

The resulting Seafarers’ Center was, and still is, one of the largest seafarers’ centers in the U.S.: an 18,000 square foot building encompassing a chapel, restaurant, gaming areas, and office space; a pool; a soccer field; and at the time, a locker room with sauna. A pavilion was added on later for basketball and cookouts. From its opening in 1973 through the end of the 1980s, the Seafarers’ Center was always busy as the hub of seafarer entertainment and spiritual needs in Houston, and received over a million visitors. Patricia Poulos, the HISC executive director since 1996, first came to the Seafarers’ Center as a volunteer in its earliest years in the 1970s. She recalls the vibrancy of the full center and the comradery of young men of all nationalities bonding over soccer games. As vessels often stayed in port for a week at a time, seafarers were able to “form bonds and friendship that last to this day.”

More important than providing entertainment, though, is ensuring that the seafarers’ basic necessities for health and well-being are met. Rev. Lacy Largent, the Seafarers’ Center’s current coordinating chaplain, referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as she noted that in addition to the physical needs of food, shelter, and safety, the seafarers also need the peace of mind they get when they are able to communicate with their loved ones no matter the distance. The Seafarers’ Center stepped in to provide the seafarers’ with easy telephone access, and in 1981 through a partnership with Southwestern Bell, a bank of payphones was installed in the center.

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The phone banks at the HISC were installed by Southwestern Bell in 1981 and provided a source for communication for the seafarers and income for the Seafarer’s Center.

The payphones served another purpose: revenue for the center. Despite being the first of its kind, Houston remains fairly unique in the way the 2014_GWI_cropped-revisedorganization is divided. The leaders who started Houston’s center recognized that not all companies or individuals can or will donate to religious charities. Therefore, the Seafarers’ Center is intentionally a secular organization focused on humanitarian work. The chaplains who visit the vessels and provide services at the Seafarers’ Center earn living wages through various methods, including donations solicited by a dedicated committee or full funding by their church. The monies raised by the Seafarers’ Center through their annual gala, voluntary tariffs on incoming vessels, or services rendered to seafarers cover administration and operations costs, along with gifts for the seafarers. For a number of years, payphone revenues played an important role in the Seafarers’ Center budget.

Technology has impacted everyone’s lives, and seafarers - and seafarers’ centers - are no exception. After taking a nearly 20-year hiatus from the Seafarers’ Center, Pat Poulos returned, in 1996, as a staff member and found that much about the seafarers and the Seafarers’ Center had changed.

By the mid-1990s, the number of people coming to the Seafarers’ Center had started to decline. Vessels no longer required massive crews, so even though the number of vessels visiting Houston was on the rise, the number of crewmen was not. To keep the restaurant and lounge solvent, the Seafarers’ Center opened its services to all of the port employees, not just the seafarers, and the restaurant became frequented by local stevedores. The demographics of seafarers had shifted as well, and now they are predominantly career mariners from South and Southeast Asia.

One of the most important changes, though, has been the quickening avalanche of technology transforming how the seafarers meet their communication needs. The payphone banks became outdated and underutilized, so the center started selling phone cards. That fell away in favor of cellphone minutes, then SIM cards, and now hotspot rentals. With each advancement, communication became easier for the seafarers. For the chaplains and the Seafarers’ Center, though, finding new ways to interact with the crew and to replace the lost payphone income has been elusive.

Declining shore time is another key factor of the changing times. Between faster vessel turnaround times and advanced security measures implemented since 9/11, seafarer shore access has become increasingly limited.  A February 2016 article in the Nautilus Telegraph, a UK mariners’ newspaper, reported that more than 75% of seafarers are unable to go ashore while in port. This has further altered the role of seafarers’ centers across the U.S. What used to be the hub of seafarer activity in port is now inaccessible to a majority of the seafarers. Combining that with changing entertainment preferences, or as Tom Tellepsen II succinctly puts it, “Less soccer, more Wi-Fi,” and the path forward of the traditional seafarers’ center becomes less clear. Other seafarers’ centers are facing these existential questions, as well, trying to identify ways that seafarers’ centers can remain relevant and serve a new generation of seafarers.

The chaplains and the staff of the Houston International Seafarers’ Center are adapting to the new reality of port business as they look for innovative ways to continue serving the seafarers. Since the crews may not be able to leave the ship to come ashore, the chaplains instead go to the crews. Rev. Largent describes her position as a “world missionary – without the travel expenses,” because the chaplains are able to interact with so many people and cultures from around the world. They are also often the first, and sometimes only, ambassadors of the port, welcoming the seafarers to Houston with Texas hospitality.

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Rev. Largent and other Seafarer Center chaplains bring over 12,500 gift boxes, donated by over 200 churches, to seafarers on their ships for Christmas.

Each of the three on-duty chaplains will board six to eight vessels per day. They make every effort for the visit to occur at the first dock the vessel calls on while in port. Chaplains bring along some basic necessities and gifts for the crewmembers – toiletries, books, Bibles, playing cards, and a Wi-Fi hotspot. By demonstrating to the crew that they care about their safety and comfort, Rev. Largent finds that the chaplains are more likely to connect with the crewmembers on a more personal level. For some seafarers, that manifests as prayer requests and for others, simply life counseling. Still others look to the chaplains for help in more drastic situations, such as when they have not been paid in months or are ill but not allowed to leave the vessel to get to a hospital.

This has also lead to one of the most popular programs the Seafarers’ Center offers now: Christmas shoeboxes. Each year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the Seafarers’ Center and many volunteers package gifts for the crew members. Many of the items are donated, including books, games, gloves and scarves, and Bibles in a number of languages. Volunteers wrap over 12,500 boxes, and the chaplains deliver them to seafarers spending the holidays away from their families and unable to leave their vessels to celebrate on shore.

HISC FloorPlan

Floor plan for the current Houston International Seafarer’s Center, serving as the home for seafarers since 1973, is in the midst of its final year of service as the HISC moves into the Seamen’s Church Institute in 2017.

The board, staff, and chaplains of the Seafarers’ Center view the move to the new building as a chance to reinvent the center and to reengage the port community. The new space will be about 8,200 square feet compared to the current 18,000 square feet, and as the building is newer and in better repair, the administrators expect a sizable decline in maintenance costs. The restaurant will still be available to the seafarers and the port community, though Tom discussed the possibility that the menu and ambiance would be more refined than the current diner-style fare.

2015 HALF Blank RomeIt also opens the possibility for renewed support of the Seafarers’ Center. The Houston Maritime Arbitrators Association’s Spring Charity Gala on April 29, 2016, will celebrate the memory of Fr. Rivers Patout and his decades of dedication to mariners and the Houston port community. All of the proceeds from the event will be donated to the Seafarers’ Center, making it the third consecutive year that HMAA has donated some or all of the Charity Gala proceeds to the Seafarers’ Center. Tom hopes that this will raise awareness of the vital role mariners play in our modern economy. One would be hard-pressed to find an American who did not own clothing or gadgets that entered the country through a marine port, but the men and women who work on the vessels remain anonymous. On the other side of the coin, only 25-35% of vessels visiting Houston contribute the voluntary tariff that provides most of the operational funds for the center. With renewed focus on the seafarers and the Seafarers’ Center, perhaps more vessel owners will contribute the small tariff to provide better services for their crews.

When asked what the future holds for the Houston International Seafarers’ Center, Tom, Pat, and Rev. Largent all responded the same: only time will tell. But all three were positive that the Houston maritime community will continue to support and welcome the seafarers to our port.

  • Date April 11, 2016
  • Tags April 2016