Chaplain, Nun and Captain on the Mississippi: The Men Didn't Expect a Chaplain Who Knew the River Culture and Its Lingo, the Waterway and Its Dangers, or, Especially, the Complexity and Loneliness of Their Jobs

By Halter, Deborah | National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Chaplain, Nun and Captain on the Mississippi: The Men Didn't Expect a Chaplain Who Knew the River Culture and Its Lingo, the Waterway and Its Dangers, or, Especially, the Complexity and Loneliness of Their Jobs


Halter, Deborah, National Catholic Reporter


When Simon Peter and his brother Andrew answered a call to become not only fishermen but also "fishers of men," they might have wondered what, exactly, that meant. But when Joy Manthey of New Orleans decided to expand her job as a riverboat captain to include ministering to riverboat captains (and pilots and deckhands), she knew exactly what she was doing. She had once written a class paper on an image of God as a GPS--a Global Positioning Satellite.

"God always knows exactly where I am, just like a GPS," Manthey said. And she makes it her business to know where her people are on the river, the big one, the Mississippi.

At first, the men she ministers to were a bit mystified. They didn't expect their chaplain to be a woman. They didn't expect a woman who knew the river culture and its lingo, the waterway and its dangers, or, especially, the complexity and loneliness of their jobs. And the last thing they expected was a nun.

Manthey, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, headquartered in Cincinnati but with communities all along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, has been navigating the Mississippi virtually all her life. Her great-great-grandfather, John Streckfus, built the first excursion boat on the Mississippi River. Her great-uncle hired a young Louis Armstrong to play jazz on the Streckfus boats. She earned her captain's license as a high school senior, and at age 21 she became the first woman to earn an Unlimited Inland Master of Steam and Motor Vessels license, qualifying her to both pilot and captain a vessel on any inland waterway in the United States.

"I was 10 the first time I took the wheel," she recalled, evoking a memory of the day the captain of a Streckfus passenger boat let her take the wheel while he ate lunch. "I had to stand on milk crates, because I couldn't see over the wheel."

Her height notwithstanding, from that day on she grew in knowledge and ability, learning the ways of the river and the people who navigate it. But as any woman knows, being qualified for a "man's job" and being allowed to do that job are sometimes two different things. For 16 years, Manthey piloted excursion boats while trying to get a job on the kind of boat she really wanted to pilot--a towboat, the workhorse of the Mississippi River. For 16 years, even though she was well qualified, no one would hire her because she was female.

"They'd say, 'We're not hiring any cooks,'" she said. In a way, they were echoing her fifth-grade teacher who, after assigning the topic of what students wanted to be when they grew up, responded to Joy's essay by telling her to erase it and put down a real answer.

Amidst lifelong blockades to life on a towboat, at age 24 Manthey opened her own passenger boat business and operated it from Baton Rouge, La., for 13 years. Still wanting a towboat job, in 1995 she was sitting in the pilothouse of a casino boat when she happened to see a small newspaper ad about the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille.

"I had thought about being a nun for a long time, but there was a problem," she said. "I didn't want to teach and I didn't want to nurse. And that's what I thought nuns did."

Nevertheless, Manthey enrolled in the religious community's discernment process and began living with the sisters in New Orleans. She learned that the community's founder, Jesuit Fr. Jean Pierre Medaille, in 1650 had told the sisters to minister to people in whatever way was needed. Shortly after entering the discernment process, and as if on divine cue, Manthey received a job offer from a towboat company. It was as if answering the call to religious life had opened the door for a call she had been awaiting for 16 years.

"It felt like God calling," she said. The towboat job paid one third of what her income had been with the passenger boat business she had closed the year before, but something important was happening that had little to do with her financial status. …

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