Chaplain Emeritus Father Paul Noel and his wife, Virginia, have been helping seafarers for more than 50 years. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng
Chaplain Emeritus Father Paul Noel and his wife, Virginia, have been helping seafarers for more than 50 years. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng
The original Missions to Seamen building in Wellington Road on the Point.
The original Missions to Seamen building in Wellington Road on the Point.
Seafarers enjoying the swimming pool at the original club in Wellington Road on the Point.
Seafarers enjoying the swimming pool at the original club in Wellington Road on the Point.
Durban - The city's Father Paul Noel is the longest-serving chaplain in the world, providing comfort to seafarers who are thousands of miles away from home.

Having started in 1963 helping out at the The Missions to Seamen (now Seafarers) Club in Wellington Road in the Point, Paul said he would definitely do it all again. While he has been retired for a number of years, he still works voluntarily, assisting with services at the club which is now based in Bayhead, working with the chaplains’ committee, as well as doing hospital visits to injured and sick seafarers.

“It has been so rewarding, especially the hospital visits. I think it makes a difference for a seafarer to see a friendly face. I remember arriving at the hospital with some chocolate for one chap and he jumped out of the bed, calling me father,” he said.

That was but one visit of thousands over the last half a century and Paul was quick to point out that his wife of nearly 60 years, Virginia, has been at his side helping and providing a mother figure for many a lost soul.

Having grown up in Clare Estate in a family of six sisters and two brothers, Father Paul often helped his mother at the family’s small supply store, while his father, Noel Ramadu, worked as a hotel wine steward at the old Twines Hotel on the Esplanade (it was demolished in the mid-1960s)

It was his father-in-law, the late Reverend James Francis, who asked Paul to help out at the shop at the seafarers’ mission.

“I didn’t want to do it at all - the Point did not have a good reputation - but God was calling,” he said.

The chaplain at the time, Reverend Jimmy Wilson-Hughes, became his mentor and friend, both working long hours. He took up a full-time position in 1964.

His day would start at about 9.30am and, on foot, he would visit ships all along the quayside.

“We didn’t have any transport and I would visit five or six ships a day. At night we would still be busy and I would often only get home at about midnight.

“During the evening hours, I would sit with the seafarers, they would like to come and sit and talk about their families and that was where the conversation really started.

“It was quite a unique position really and I think you have to have a calling and to be a good listener. You have to be somebody who will spend an hour just listening to whatever someone wants to talk about,” he said.

The heydays for the mission were from ‘60s to the ‘80s and particularly during the time that the Suez Canal was closed (1967-1975).

There was a constant stream of vessels from the Union-Castle Line mail ships and ships of companies such as British India, Bank Line and Ellerman & Bucknall.

The club hosted soccer and cricket matches, screened movies, had a swimming pool, interpreters and a tour bus.

“We had a lot of Chinese sailors and they always wanted to visit the Lion Park. They would always ask if they could get out to take a photo and we would tell them the lions were waiting with their chopsticks,” said Paul with a smile, adding that at the hospital there was a dedicated ward for seafarers.

In the early days there was only one telephone for seafarers to phone home, but this was expanded to five or six phones and Paul said the club ran up the biggest phone bill in Durban at that time, with amounts reaching R180000 a month.

The ships would often stay in port for a week or two, with sailors becoming familiar faces. Paul said with the advent of automation, ships’ crew numbers had dwindled considerably and ship turnaround time had also become far shorter.

In 1978 the Wellington Road site was closed, with Paul moving over to the seafarers centre at 154 Point Road.

In 1981 the Seafarers Centre at Bayhead was opened. It was jointly run by the different seafarer service bodies, with early participants being The Missions to Seafarers, The International Sailors Society (ISS) and the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS)

Having started as a lay reader and then lay minister, in 1998 Paul was ordained as a priest.

He was made a Chaplain Emeritus, and in 2014 was honoured in Geneva, Switzerland, for his life’s work at the Durban mission. He also received a commendation from UK’s Princess Anne in her role as president of The Mission to Seafarers and was the first person to receive the Dierk Lindermann Welfare Personality of the Year Award.

But for Paul, his reward remains a seafarer’s smile lighting up in a hospital room.

“I always feel in the morning when I get up, this is what God is calling me to do for seafarers,” he said.

The Independent on Saturday