Karen Parsons is no iconoclast. She hasn’t challenged her church’s teaching on women, but she has chosen a ministry of compassion to seafarers from all across the world, especially to those who pass through Galveston’s port. Even so, she’s been a pioneer when it comes to cracking the stained glass ceiling.
Parsons began working in port ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1985 as a volunteer. Two years later, she became the director of the seafarer’s program there. Then in 1992, she was appointed by Bishop Joseph Fiorenza to be the first Catholic laywoman in the world granted the title of port chaplain. That was at the Port of Galveston, where she still serves.
Now, she has been appointed by the Catholic hierarchy to serve as regional coordinator of the Apostleship of the Sea in North America. She will retain her duties as Galveston’s port chaplain while taking on the new, national ones.
Seafarers from all acrpss the world come to the Galveston Seafarer’s Center and call on Parsons to assist with their various needs, from locating loved ones after a disaster to providing counseling, said Natalie Clarke, president of center’s board.
As for Parsons, she is certain that God has a sense of humor, which might be part of why she is here.
“Back in the 1980s when I started, there wasn’t a whole lot for lay women to do,” she said. “I saw a small ad in the church bulletin in Detroit asking for volunteers for the ministry on the docks. I thought it sounded interesting and went to find out about it.”
But there’s more to it than that. Parsons suffers from acrophobia and aquaphobia. That’s right, it’s an act of both bravery and faith each time the chaplain climbs a 60-foot gangway dangling over open water, since she is afraid of both heights and of water.
“I felt called — until I just had to climb that first gangway,” she said. “I nearly quit. The port chaplain in Detroit asked me to pray and give it one try first. So I prayed all the way up the gangway and met my first crew. Then I was hooked. Now, daily, I have to face my fears to climb up those high ladders that hang over the water to meet the people that I’ve been called to serve.”
Parsons will be off to Rome next week to learn more about her added responsibilities. In the meantime, she said that the most important things that supporters of the center should understand are that work life on the high seas is one of long days, excessive stress, time pressure and even the dangers of modern piracy.
“We meet men and women from all over the world who sacrifice being with their families to make a living at sea,” she said. “Our lives, we who live on land, are made more comfortable and enjoyable by the products brought in and taken from our ports by people who do not get to see their families for months.”
Parson’s will continue to provide all the prayer and presence she can to those workers who make port calls here and will also add her expertise to such ministries as a national voice in her new as regional coordinator.
“We have been truly blessed with Karen’s presence; she has positively impacted thousands of lives throughout her career,” Clarke said.
Rick Cousins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.