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Where souls dock: Catholic chapel offers Christmas oasis

Catholic chapel offers Christmas oasis by The Washington Post | December 25, 2021 at 3:10 a.m.
Rev. John Corbett holds Sunday Mass at Stella Maris, a Roman Catholic Chapel in Newark, N.J. on December 19, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Yana Paskova

Rudy Moni, the musician at Stella Maris, a Catholic chapel in the shadows of empty shipping containers at Port Newark, N.J., adjusted a microphone, strummed his guitar and shouted to the Rev. John Corbett on the first Sunday of Advent.

"Count us off, Father!" Moni said.

"A one and a two," Corbett said.

Sixteen communicants sang "Be Not Afraid" to commence Mass. When they finished, Corbett, 63, complimented the congregation.

"I feel like I'm at the Winter Garden Theatre with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Neil Young all in one," he said.

"All the stars come to Stella Maris," Moni said. "Let me tell ya."

It is an eclectic constellation at Stella Maris, Latin for Star of the Sea. Longshoremen pray two pews from armed U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, and crane operators offer peace to curiosity seekers as big rigs rumble past the Nativity scene outside all year on Corbin Street, a main corridor. To be heard, they sing above a chorus of train whistles and truck horns. As Christmas delivery deadlines loom during the supply-chain crisis, cranes beep, chassis rattle and the chapel vibrates when trucks pass. At night, Corbett sleeps on a Murphy bed in his small office. To meditate, he wears silicone earplugs.

"We're an oasis in the middle of an industrial desert," he said.

Corbett is an unlikely headliner. Born in the Bronx, he grew up among bungalows on Silver Beach, graduated from State University of New York Maritime College in 1980 and set sail as an engineer on petroleum tankers from Portland, Maine, to the Panama Canal. He plied his trade for three years before dropping anchor on Long Island, where he bought a house -- a handyman's special -- and took a job with Con Edison, working at a power plant on the East River. But after three years and a period with a charismatic prayer group, he experienced a calling while raking leaves.

"I felt Jesus next to me," he said. "He didn't have enough good priests."

Corbett sold his house and truck, moved into St. Joseph's House in Manhattan and went from making $52,000 per year to a $10 stipend each week. He pursued the priesthood, went through eight years of study and was ordained at 37, on the same day as his brother, Rich, two years his junior. His first assignment was at a parish in Jersey City, and his second was as a chaplain in a nursing home and then at a retreat center in Kearny, N.J., before he was assigned to the neighboring port.

"I prayed to the Lord, and He said be obedient," Corbett said. "I'm not typically obedient, but in this case I was."

The chapel's address could be hard to find. In 1977, the Rev. Charlie McTague ministered to seafarers on their vessels and gathered workers to worship in a cinder-block gatehouse by berth 50 on the channel. Robert Chin, then a crane mechanic who found the chapel while logging overtime hours on Sundays, recalled the priest welcoming him to confession in a furnace room for lack of space.

"Let's burn your sins away," McTague said.

Sinners followed McTague wherever he held Mass, whether in containers or trailers. He walked gangways, had services on vessels, ran Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and preached calm amid chaos. In 2002, a prefabricated chapel was built with money from John LoBue, the founder of Foreign Automotive Preparation Service. Stained-glass windows depicted Jesus at sea. When Corbett arrived in 2005, his long hair, black leather jacket, penchant to drink more than sacramental wine and fluency in port patois endeared him to dockworkers.

"People are searching for meaning in their work," he said. "They have to understand their work is holy. When Jesus called his apostles, every single one of them was working. No one was praying in the church."

Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded the chapel with 40 inches of water; the congregation was displaced once more. Corbett reimagined the space and arranged for a marble altar to be imported from Italy. He placed a wooden tabernacle shaped like a ship in the center and rigged a pulley system to suspend a candle over it. When the building vibrates because of truck traffic, the candle swings occasionally.

"No matter how loud it is during the consecration, I hear nothing," said Liam Rogers, a warehouse operator. "All the noise fades away."

Rogers, 63, first attended noon Mass on a weekday in 2006. It was just him and Corbett. Two of Rogers' brothers had died the previous year, and he cast about for answers. He took to Corbett's plain-spoken approach that Rogers called "bare-knuckle theology" and has been a daily communicant since.

"I've heard really intelligent homilies, really impassioned homilies, but never the realism that John has," Rogers said. "I feel the true faith in that chapel."

When the coronavirus pandemic began, Corbett received an email from the Port Authority saying that all maritime terminal personnel were essential workers, and he posted it on the glass door in the foyer. He maintained his ministry, but many worshippers stayed away. For the past two summers, the blessing of the port has not taken place, and he lost eight regulars to retirement. The congregation now numbers 25 to 30.

At night, Corbett sits in a recliner in the chapel and pulls up a blanket. Upon request, he visits vessels to celebrate morning Mass and responds to emergencies. A few years ago, Jimmy Petrocelli, a third-generation longshoreman who has been coming to the chapel for 43 years, had a worker in his shop who lost a hand while changing cables on a crane 180 feet above the dock. The injured employee requested a priest's anointment before surgery. Corbett rushed to University Hospital.

"Father's just as important as an ambulance to me," Petrocelli said.

Corbett seeks balance at this time of year. On the first day of Hanukkah, a congregant brought a menorah that his girlfriend, whose family is Jewish and Catholic, donated to the chapel. Corbett lit a candle all eight days and featured the menorah by the tabernacle. Last week, a lawyer who sells Christmas trees on the side dropped one off. Corbett relishes the season. On the third Sunday of Advent, he dressed in traditional pink vestments. He smiled on the altar.

"Is this my color or what?" he said.

In street clothes, he drives a silver pickup truck with a yellow light on top through the port's busy lanes, past a greasy-spoon luncheonette and beyond a gate by a former Singer sewing machine factory. It is a waterfront lot next to a warehouse with broken windows, and he noses onto a rocky ledge between concrete blocks, where he eyes red-hull ships beneath the Bayonne Bridge and prays the rosary.

"Even on a miserable day, there's something about being near the water that I enjoy," he said. "It could be stormy, middle of winter, but I'd feel peaceful."

Serenity is fleeting. During noon Mass that day, worshippers looking through stained glass could see the silhouette of trucks speeding to and from the port. When a big rig hit a bump outside, the chapel shook; plane engines roared at the airport.

As Corbett prepared to distribute the Eucharist, Moni announced the next hymn. It was No. 305 in the seasonal songbook: "Silent Night."

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