“My vocation is to be a deacon rather than a priest,” Deacon Nick O’Neill, Stella Maris senior area port chaplain for the South of England and Wales, told Fishing News. “‘Deacon’ comes from the Greek work diákonos, which means to serve.

“I have a fantastic role model in my mum, who is a wonderful servant of other people, and always puts other people first. So I’ve always had a desire to serve, help and do good things for other people – because I’ve had that from my mother.”

Nick’s introduction to helping people in a professional capacity came via an unlikely route. “I did a sports and leisure degree at university. My first job was working at a 10-pin bowling centre.

“I met my now wife, and I kept saying to her that as much as I liked the job, I just felt that there was something better, something bigger for me to do. We ended up going off to America where I had planned to work in a bowling centre – but they messed up the visas.

“Whilst my visa was being sorted out, I volunteered with the company that hired my wife. They ran projects for children who had learning difficulties, and I worked in a school for teenagers who had behavioural challenges. I was a bit like a PE teacher really – and I loved it.”

After spells working in a residential home for young adults with learning and physical disabilities back in the UK, and teaching English in Madrid, Nick took on a role as an outreach worker engaging with rough sleepers in Fareham and Gosport.

It was subsequent positions with the Sailors’ Children’s Society and later the Fishermen’s Mission that led to Nick’s current role.

“I did five years with the Mission, got ordained as a permanent deacon in 2019, and then in 2020 Stella Maris advertised for a senior area port chaplain. Being ordained and having experience of working with seafaring families and fishermen, it just seemed like a natural progression.”

Stella Maris, founded in Glasgow in 1920, helps seafarers in need with practical, pastoral and spiritual support, and is represented in some 350 ports worldwide.

As senior area port chaplain, Nick is responsible for 10 chaplains covering an area from Milford Haven to East Anglia, taking in ports across Devon, Cornwall, the central south coast, Kent and Essex.

Nick in Portsmouth with the skipper of Last Chance SM 701. The fishing industry remains very much a focus of his work. “We work well with the Mission, especially down on the south coast, and we’ll often get together and see what we can do to help fishermen and their families.”

“It’s quite hard to say a ‘day in the life’ for me because you never really know what’s going to happen each day,” said Nick.

“For example, last week I spent Monday in Felixstowe. I have a full-time chaplain there, so I went up to see him with Tim Hill MBE, the CEO of Stella Maris.

“We went onboard one of the big container ships MSC Mariella – which is some 400m long, and 80m high. We spent time with a couple of the crew and the captain, and we also visited the seafarers’ centre there, which has been taken over and is being refurbished by Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest.”

Looking after the welfare of his chaplains is an important part of Nick’s role. “I’m a chaplain to the chaplains. I check in with them to make sure they’re OK. Sometimes they can be quite isolated, and the cases they’re dealing with can be challenging or upsetting.”

Another part of his role is to help organise services for seafarers. “On Tuesday I met Hayley Hamlett from the Mission. We had a catch-up about how things are generally across the south coast for fishermen, and if there were any particular cases or people struggling that we might need to be aware of. We also had a chat about a service we’re leading in Portsmouth for the National Fishing Remembrance Day that’s coming up nationwide on 12 May. We discussed the plan and structure for the service.

“Following that, I had a meeting down at The Camber in Portsmouth. That’s where the memorial is for the Wilhelmina J – and where we’ll conduct the memorial service. I have to understand what is needed in terms of things like health and safety and risk assessments, as the location is right on the quay edge next to the sea.”

Nick collecting Easter eggs donated for seafarers. In addition to port chaplains, a large number of volunteers help look after the welfare of seafarers. “We have a tremendous number of volunteers. These people give up their time and energy because they have a passion to support and serve seafarers.”

Following on from his time at the Fishermen’s Mission, the welfare of the fishing community remains an important part of Nick’s job.

“I predominately spend time looking after my chaplains, but I still try to keep up my visits to some of the local fishermen – the guys that I built up relationships with when I was with the Mission. I try to go and visit fishermen as often as possible – that could be in Mudeford in Dorset, Portsmouth, Selsey or Shoreham.”

For Nick, being able to serve and help people provides more than simply job satisfaction. “Being in this position means that I’m not only trying to serve and support local people the best I can, but I’m also supporting my 10 chaplains in their vocation and desire to support and serve other people.

“I feel really honoured to be in a position where we’re helping and supporting so many people.”


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