By PAUL A. BARRA
MOUNT PLEASANT — When a columnist referred to Ernesto M. Torres as “St. Ernie” in a local newspaper earlier this year, he was embarrassed. None of the thousands of people from across the state who know Torres were surprised to hear of the appellation, however.
“The image of Christ fits Ernie,” said Robert Maguire, a fellow cursillista. “He’s the most sincere human I know.”
Torres earned his unofficial canonization for the immense amounts of care and effort he put into easing the plight of a merchantman crew stranded in Charleston Harbor during the summer and fall of 1998. Their ship, the SS St. Thomas, was seized by U.S. marshals for non-payment of port bills. The captain and crew had nothing to do with the business aspects of the freighter, but since they also had not been paid, they had no money and nowhere to go. Besides that, the Coast Guard could not let them leave a large vessel unattended in the middle of a busy harbor.
At the beginning of July, nobody realized that the ship would be immobilized for so long it would become a reference point for local navigators.
Since the fuel aboard the St. Thomas was limited, the sailors could only run the generators, and the fans and air conditioner, intermittently. It was a hot summer in the Lowcountry.
When the owner of the Belize-registered ship was finally located in Greece, he refused to pay his bills and, in effect, gave up his rights to ownership. But when the Ports Authority entertained bids on St. Thomas in August, the single bid was only $200,000 — not enough to pay the crew much after food and fuel bills. So the bid was refused and the abandoned ship sat and sat.
Just prior to July 4, which is celebrated in the Philippines as a day for commemorating American-Filipino relations, the port chaplain for the British and International Sailors Society, Rev. Thomas B. Hope, contacted Torres because he knew of his reputation and that Torres was a native of the Philippine Islands, as were most of the crew.
“Ernie was the first person who came to mind,” Rev. Hope said. “He was called for this moment (for) he’s a true humanitarian. The way this all worked out was nothing short of miraculous.”
The way it worked out was tantamount to a second career for Torres. For four months, he and his wife, Elaine, subjugated their lives to the welfare of the St. Thomas crew. Virtually all of their spare time was relegated to the 17 men who became their adopted family. Torres ferried the men back and forth from their anchorage in his own small boat every weekend and many weekdays; he and Elaine fed them at their home, brought them to Mass, took them shopping and to their first football game, got them in contact with other Philippine natives and, most importantly, got them on the phone with families back in Asia (and in the case of three sailors, the Ukraine) they had not talked to in six months. They raised money from the Knights of Columbus, the Charleston Filipino Community Association in Goose Creek, the parishioners of Christ Our King and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and from individual donors who heard of the work Torres was doing. In all, people donated more than $15,000 to help the stranded seamen.
Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute and Ryan’s Steak House shipped food to the men and other people gave them clothing and presents. On July 27, Torres put $1,375 on his own credit card to fly Captain Zenaidez Gomez back to the Philippines when his son was murdered in Cebu. That was a full chapter of the story itself.
When Torres learned of the tragedy through the chaplain’s office, he took the captain to call home. Gomez’ wife could not bring herself to tell him the sad news of their son but he could hear the distress in her voice. Overcome with anxiety, he looked to Torres. The College of Charleston assistant controller had to break the news to his new friend that his young son was dead.
Torres had to get clearance for the ship’s master to leave the ship. The Coast Guard was not willing to let the ship sit at anchor without a captain on board. Enter Keith Marshall.
The Charleston lawyer, who represented the crew, holds a captain’s license for charter boats. Marshall persuaded the U.S. Coast Guard to let him substitute aboard the St. Thomas and Gomez was able to go home to bury his child. The attorney turned sea captain for four days.
Torres was out of pocket for the flight, and for the food, gas and supplies he and Elaine paid for every week of their long odyssey with the St. Thomas. They took out a home equity loan of $5,100 and gave the money to the crew as an advance against their eventual salary repayment. He may get that money back someday and Torres is quick to point out that other people have contributed funds to cover many expenses.
When asked about the October repatriation of the crew (the ship sold in Sept. for $250,000 and crew members will get about 70 percent of their back pay from the deal once legal fees and other expenses are paid), Torres said only: “I will miss them.” Based on the emotional outpourings at a farewell luncheon at the Torres’ Mount Pleasant home on Oct. 3, the sailors will miss him too.
Torres got involved with the St. Thomas in his usual manner: he was praying to find some good work to do. He calls the message from Rev. Hope a miracle, because of its timing, but the true miracle is how he manages to do as much as he does in the time allotted to human endeavor. He is an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at Christ Our King, an usher, a greeter, active in the Cursillo movement and in Kairos, the prison cursillo, and is a third degree knight. When his two sons were at Christ Our King-Stella Maris School, he served on the school board and as chair of the annual bazaar. He visits Leiber Correctional Institute with Father Rick Harris to help celebrate Mass for the Catholic inmates. He is willing to help when anyone has a need.
“While most of us watch and wonder, Ernie makes things happen. He operates out of his true Christian core,” said Don Burkart, a parishioner at Christ Our King and a member of the cursillo where Torres serves regularly as rector.
Burkart said his friend follows his baptismal call. Elaine Torres, who has been married to Ernie for 24 years, said it was never any different.
“He’s always been involved in something,” Mrs. Torres said. “Ever since I’ve known him he’s been a giving person. And he has that effect on other people.”
Even before Elaine knew him, Torres was preparing to offer his life to God’s kingdom. As a 6-year-old altar server at St. Francis Xavier Church in the little town of Kabankalan in the Philippines, he opened the church doors every morning at 5 a.m. He wanted to be a priest.
“My job was to ring the bells,” Torres said.
He migrated to Mount Pleasant in 1971, earned an MBA from The Citadel and his certified public accountant credentials. He has been earning a living and living out his spirituality ever since. For the many people whose lives have been affected by Ernie Torres, he is still the first one to ring God’s bells every day.