Maritime ministry training gains perspective from long-time former seafarers turned ministers

March 15, 2011

PORT OF HOUSTON — Required to be gone months at a time from home and family, the seafaring profession is not for the faint of spirit, but many who choose the life never forget the hospitable welcomes received at port following a long journey.

Since 1973, the Houston Maritime Ministry Training Program has provided formation to future ministers willing to be that beacon of warmth to weary and homesick travelers.

“The ship is [a seafarers’] home from three to eight months,” said Brother Anthony Ornelas, S.S.S., a port chaplain in Houston and the program organizer this year. “Their shipmates are their family. Chaplains just try to help them with whatever needs they have, offer support to them — and simply be there for them.”

Students in the two-week program are multi-denominational and come from all over the world; seven of this year’s class of 13 were Catholic.

The school, held in February every year, operates in conjunction with the Apostleship of the Sea ministry for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

The Apostleship of the Sea (or Port Chaplaincy) is responsible for the sacramental and pastoral care of the Catholic seafarers from around the world who enter ports in the Archdiocese. There are centers in Galveston, Barbour’s Cut and the Port of Houston. Catholic chaplains regularly collaborate with ministers of other faiths in port ministry.

The Apostleship of the Sea is funded through the Diocesan Services Fund. The DSF is the annual appeal that supports the multiple ministries of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. This year’s appeal, “He who hears you, hears Me” (Luke 10:16), is currently underway.

Father Rivers Patout, the Apostleship of the Sea director, is a founder of the chaplain program in Houston, which remains one of the largest ports in the world. There are currently schools in Europe and Asia based on a model similar to the one in Houston.

“Over the years, we have probably educated most of the chaplains that serve across the world,” Father Patout said.

Some chaplain experience is a prerequisite for students enrolled in the program.

“They come as teachers, as well as students — and they teach us every year, too,” Father Patout said. “We have people from all over the world come here to teach.”

The program curriculum differs year to year, with a diverse selection of specialists offering presentations that cover everything from hospitality to seafarers’ rights and dock security.

A graduate last year, Deacon Allan Frederiksen of St. Christopher Church was among those offering instruction this year. Originally from Denmark, Deacon Frederiksen spent 20-plus years as a seafarer. While admitting to occasionally missing life at sea, he is grateful for the opportunity to be “on the other side,” helping those coming to port.

“I feel that I have an advantage in that I can relate back to my time at sea at foreign ports,” he said. “When someone came onboard — a person you could talk to, a person for seafarers — we were happy even if they were just there to lend an ear. Some people would be on the water for almost a year and they would almost be basket cases, so to have someone like a chaplain come aboard and visit with them is very important.”
Retired from the U.S. Navy, Deacon Ed Vargas of Honolulu, Hawaii, was tapped by his bishop to start a chaplaincy center in his home diocese.

“I always remember the kindness from the people in port when they met the ships to help us seafarers,” he said. “At this stage in life when the opportunity came up, I decided to go for it because I know how much that kind of support means to them.”

Deacon Vargas looks forward to giving back to the sailors, and to the seafaring community at large.
“I don’t want a ship to come into Pearl Harbor and feel alone and abandoned,” he said. “We are there to service their physical, mental and spiritual needs — whatever I can do to make their port visit a good one. When they leave Honolulu, I want them to think, ‘Wow, those people in Hawaii know what they are doing.’”

Father John Van Deerlin, a program enrollee from the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia in United Arab Emirates, said he was impressed with the caliber of training in Houston.

“We are looking to network with the United States more and more in terms of seafaring ministry,” he said. “This type of training will make our work more dynamic and hopefully be helpful towards seafarers.”

Many students enjoy some genuine Texan hospitality while in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which included a barbecue meal and attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

“We have been met with a lot of kindness and generosity,” Van Deerlin said. “The training here was totally ecumenical and open, and it was wonderful to share this experience with everyone else.” †