They come from all walks of life, faith and even by sea

November 26, 2013

HOUSTON — As the only survivor of the original staff and volunteers that founded the Houston Seafarers Center in 1968, Father Rivers A. Patout has been a fixture in that community for 45 years, and counting.

Father Patout is the director of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Apostleship of the Sea (AOS), or Port Chaplaincy, which is responsible for the sacramental and pastoral care of the Catholic seafarers from around the world who enter the ports in our Archdiocese. There are centers in Galveston, Barbour’s Cut and the Port of Houston.

The AOS, a ministry of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston that is funded by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), is one of several interfaith ministries located at the center, working alongside Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterians and other non-denominational chaplains and the Board of Seafarers to manage and operate the facilities. 

The Port Ministry, one of the largest of its kind, currently has 15 chaplains made up of priests, religious, deacons and seminarians, some staff and volunteers. Chaplains work hand in hand with staff run by the center’s board of directors, which is formed by the maritime industry, port officials and the ministry. 

“The AOS was formed by Catholic layman in the United Kingdom in the early 1900s, when many seafarers were victimized by their employers, had bad working conditions, and spiritual lives practically ignored,” Father Patout said. “Some years later, the AOS became an official ministry headquartered in the Vatican.” 

“The current AOS emerged from an interfaith group formed in the east end of Houston to serve the social concerns of the area,” Father Patout said. “The captain of a ship docked at the port stopped by one of the Presbyterian churches to complain about why there were no seafarer centers in Houston like other ports in the world. This led to our center being the first in the world to join with different faiths, the maritime industry officials, and port officials to make one center to serve all.” 

Father Patout said the AOS falls under tourism and migration or what he calls “people on the move.” 

“These men do not have regular access to their families or church, so we become their families, their church,” Father Patout said. “We take care of the complete person, and are concerned about both their personal and spiritual well-being.”

Regardless if the seafarers stay on the boat while in port or choose to come to the center, they can receive spiritual direction, rosaries, prayer cards, as well as attend Mass and Reconciliation. 

The interfaith groups share a chapel and provide for whatever spiritual needs the seafarers may have. There also is a person at the center that provides help with labor or social justice issues. Father Patout said it is also important to provide seafarers with a clean, safe place to relax, socialize and enjoy recreational activities, such as swimming, basketball, billiards, ping pong, etc. 

The centers have a convenience store, restaurant grill, big-screen satellite TV in multiple languages, cable TV, DVD player and Play Station 2. There is access to free wi-fi, computers and the Internet, and phone cards available in 45 to 50 languages so they can call home.

“We pick them up and bring them back in a van,” Father Patout said. “Sometimes we are the only ones that can get these men affordably out of the facilities where they are docked. Other special transportation companies cost too much.”

The AOS is one of the recipients of DSF donations that make it possible to offer these services and accommodations. Funds also are used for the documentation required for chaplains to be allowed in this secured area, which has become stricter since 9-11. In addition, the chaplains also have an annual retreat to help recharge their own spiritual lives so they can continue to effectively minister to the seafarers.

Father Patout said this time of year, they also rely on the generosity of surrounding parishes, individuals and civic groups to collect donations to put into gift boxes for the seafarers, which are handed out from Thanksgiving to the Epiphany on Jan. 6. 

He said they hand out 10,000 to 12,000 boxes each year. There also is a program where church or school choirs and other entertainers ride on a ship around the port and sing carols to the seafarers to spread the Christmas cheer and message of Christ. 

Father Patout said that he also likes to travel, and has met up with some of the seafarer friends he has made to meet their families and to learn about their own country and cultures. He believes that all walks of life can learn from each other, which is necessary for mutual respect and understanding.

“I believe the seafarers can teach the rest of us tolerance,” Father Patout said. “They have seen many countries all over the world, and are willing to accept the fact that good people can come from all nations. They are very accepting and multi-cultural, so they have learned to work together, which is something in which we all can benefit.”