Reflections from an AOS chaplain in the Port of Houston

Fr. Jan Kubisa is a priest of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) chaplain in the Port of Houston

I was born and ordained to the priesthood in Poland. In 1987 I went to Africa to do missionary work. Then I was invited to work in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. In 2004, I joined the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) which is the Catholic maritime ministry in the Port of Houston. Serving “all the nations” is the continuation of my missionary call. Seafarers from all over the world as well as US merchant mariners come to the Port of Houston year round. The majority of seafarers are Catholic.

I work with an ecumenical team of chaplains in the Houston International Seafarers’ Center. There are several protestant chaplains, two Roman Catholic priests, a Blessed Sacrament brother and a deacon sharing in the port ministry alongside numerous volunteers who help out in various ways. I was told that our port ministry in Houston is the best organized port ministry in the world. The founder and coordinator, Fr. Rivers Patout, considers the port ministry to be the most precious part of his work.

As a Catholic priest I am in the front line of an essential pastoral service to seafarers. I often celebrate Mass on board ship. Occasionally, I help seafarers with the sacrament of reconciliation. I visit 5-10 vessels daily and bring the Good News in a simple way to thousands of hard working people. Often, a little gift of the Rosary or a prayer card which I give while ship visiting can make a difference in the lives of seafarers who are far away from home and on the sea for weeks or months on end. In return, I receive a great gift of hospitality and gratitude from numerous seafarers when I go up the ship.

There is a delicate balance between evangelizing and simply responding to seafarers’ needs. There were occasions when I celebrated Mass for only one or two seafarers. Yet it was on one of such occasions that a seafarer said: “it was the most meaningful Mass in my life”. For me, it was rewarding.

Sometimes seafarers would like to come to our Center but they are stuck on board ship because some do not have access to shore leave. In recent years unnecessary restrictions and regulations make it impossible at times for many seafarers to go on shore. I am fortunate to be able to stay and pray with those people very often. It is truly a unique ministry of reconciliation for people who are marginalized by the situation.

In particular, I enjoy those moments when I speak Russian with so many East European seafarers. They open up whenever they hear their native language spoken. The seafaring communities from the former Soviet Union are God fearing people. There are days in the Seafarers’ Center when the majority of visiting sailors are from countries of the former Soviet Union and they truly enjoy using our facilities.

Our ministry is always changing. There are new challenges. There are old problems too. Nevertheless the need for this ministry is so obvious and many seafarers reward us with their genuine gratitude for what we do.


A Seafarer's Story: Captain Celso E. Pimentel

I have been a seafarer for more than ten years and it goes to say that my vacation or stay with my family in the Philippines is shorter than my sea service. I am married with two children. One has grown up as a fine young man who is graduating from medical school this year. My youngest is a studious girl and who is now in her third year of high school.

Though we seafarers are thousands of miles away from our family, we have to bravely endure the hardships on board especially when the weather is not kind. Being far away from home for most of the year is a great sacrifice but our loved ones reap the rewards of our financial support. In general, seafarers are paid well but a seafarer’s profession is fraught with a lot of challenges. There are ups and downs while on board and in order to cope up with these trials, you must be a person with prudent thinking which is what gives one the fortitude to face many challenges. A seafarer’s life is really very lonely and risky. During many nights, when our ship is out on the wide open seas, all you can see are the heavenly bodies and stars twinkling up in the sky. During the daytime, when you are not on duty, you are quite solitary in your cabin. There never comes a time that your love ones are absent from your mind. You always think of them, wondering what is happening over there at home and if they are okay or not. 

My most unforgettable moment as a seaman was when my parents died and I was not able to go home and pay my last respects to them because I was onboard at that time and in the high seas. It was a very difficult time, but my faith sustained me.

Since this writing, our vessel has been arrested by the US Marshals and it has been more than three months since we’ve been held at the port. Imagine our situation; the crew is detained on board and not allowed even to step on the dock. As captain of the vessel, I try my best to be on top of the situation. During situations like this one, seafarers must be patient, faithful God fearing people. So to all my colleagues in this profession, just pray always for guidance from our Lord and I am sure everything will work out right.


Stella Maris of New Orleans

At Stella Maris in New Orleans, there are currently three deacons assigned with two volunteers who have served Stella Maris for over 10 years.  The two volunteers received the St. Louis Medallion from the Archbishop for their service to the ministry and to the Archdiocese. Stella Maris in the city of Destrehan is our center for maritime ministry. Stella Maris covers the maritime ports within the metropolitan New Orleans area and provides spiritual services and practical support to seafarers and fishermen. 

We go up on ships to perform communion service at seafarers’ request and to bless the ship especially if a seafarer has died on board. The Stella Maris center provides the seafarers with a chapel where they can pray and a communion service can be conducted. The practical services include access to communications such as: providing cell phones at no cost to the seafarer and cell phone cards with a nominal charge for the seafarers to contact their loved ones back home. Some seafarers prefer to come to the center where there is a basketball court, pool table and a television for their leisure pleasure. When our staffing permits it, we take seafarers to business centers. In the next few weeks, a new server for our computers and a new configuration will be installed with new software for the seafarer to actually see his family on the computer and talk to them. 

Stella Maris has been called upon by the local representative of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) to assist seafarers who are sometimes held as material witnesses in pollution cases by the Coast Guard.  A couple of years ago one such case involved six seafarers who were put up into two apartments in a nearby suburb of New Orleans.  The ITF representative made us aware of their circumstances and we at Stella Maris provided communion services and visits to the seafarers where they stayed.  Stella Maris arranged for a local Filipino group active with Stella Maris to pick up the seafarers who were mostly Catholic and took them to church.  This volunteer group also fixed meals for them.  Stella Maris staff would bring them to the center so the seafarers could use email and just have a change of scenery.  This situation lasted for approximately four to six months as they awaited the trial.

Last year, we were confronted with a terrible tragedy. The April 20, 2010 blowout that led to an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 men, and sent millions of barrels of oil into the water and along shorelines off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
As a result of the Gulf oil spill, the coastal Louisiana communities and parishes suffering from the oil spill needed assistance and aid to deal with the loss of their livelihood and emotional stress from the spill.  The assistance and aid was provided by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Catholic Charities. A call was made to the deacon community for assistance. 

In the Archdiocese, the deacons assigned to the Stella Maris Maritime Ministry (Apostleship of the Sea), were requested to assist in the development of a pastoral ministry plan and training effort for deacons, religious, and lay ministers to provide an on-site presence. A training program was developed and instructions focused on:

  1. Ministry of Presence
  2. Understanding both demographics and cultural issues of those impacted
  3. Presence based upon clear understanding of needs
  4. What constitutes the grieving process
  5. The role of empathy
  6. Dynamics of crisis counseling
  7. What to look for in terms of depression
  8. Goals of short term counseling
  9. Boundary issues and referral points
  10. Privacy issues

To address the immediate needs of the fishermen and their families who were waiting at distribution sites for hours without food or water, deacons and their wives immediately sought to provide meals on site and arranged to have cold water available for the clients at all times. Over 2,500 meals were provided with the assistance of Catholic Charities. As a ministry of presence, deacons and wives met with over 225 individuals one on one. Also, prayer cards and rosary beads were provided to the fishermen and family members. 

The AOS Gulf Oil Spill Task Force, which was composed of AOS chaplains in the impacted Gulf Coast areas, worked hard to help their local coastal and fishing communities. 

Being true to the calling of the deacon, the deacons and their wives did the will of God from their hearts; they served the people with love and joy, and were present and reached out to those in need of God’s healing love and God’s healing touch.


AOS Baltimore

Amy and Andy Middleton, a husband and wife team, are both volunteers of Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) Baltimore since 2009. After completing the Houston maritime ministry training program, a two week ecumenical program in February of 2009, they returned to AOS Baltimore to put their training into good use. Amy is administrative director while Andy is operations director of the Stella Maris International Seafarers’ (AOS) Center which is located in Dundalk, Md. Rev. Msgr. John L. FitzGerald is AOS chaplain and executive director of the Center.     

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels”.

Since joining the AOS ministry I have had the opportunity to visit with international seafarers and share time with them talking about their families and their time at sea. I have even had the most blessed opportunity to reunite family members who traveled far along the seas and from other states just to see each other here in the Port of Baltimore. When I welcome others, I welcome Jesus and share his love with them through this hospitality ministry.   -Amy


Capt. John D. Smith

US Merchant Marine Veteran
AOS member
Mobile Bar Pilot, LLC
Daphne, AL

My life as a merchant mariner began in my home port of Mobile, Alabama.  From McGill Institute Catholic High, Mobile, AL, I set my course to the US Merchant Marine Academy, graduating in 1976. I was always attracted to the wonder of the sea from my days as youngster from a family of 10 children of Richard J. and Frances Donnelly Smith of Mobile. 

I joined my first ship as deck cadet aboard the S.S. Green Wave, then under MSTS charter, which departed from my home port of Mobile, Alabama, with a full load of supplies for our US troops serving in Vietnam and South East Asia. Multiple visits were made to Hawaii, the Philippines via the San Bernardino Straits, South Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, from the US Gulf and West coasts. I happily completed the balance of my sea year sailing with Lykes Lines aboard the SS Louise Lykes, the SS Jean Lykes calling on countries in the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain, Italy, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.

Upon graduating from the US Merchant Marine Academy, I shipped out of the hall with the International Organization of Master's Mates and Pilots, serving as third mate to chief mate with a number of  US flag shipping companies including Sea-Land, U.S. Lines, AMOCO, and Lykes Lines out of New Orleans, LA. 

I was married in 1978 to my lovely wife Valery at St, Mary's Church, Manhasset, LI, New York, thus beginning a beautiful merchant marine family, filled with the joyful blessings of two boys, John Jr. (Jay) and Stephen, and one girl, Tara. Over the subsequent decade in my life as a merchant mariner, my supportive wife and extended family network helped fuel my life at sea with joy and strong emotional support during the trying times at sea away from home - in war and in peace. 

During my seagoing career I was fortunate to visit some 63 countries over 5 continents. Seeing the world for free as a mariner led to my love of adventure travel that has subsequently led me to climbs of Green Mountain on Ascention Island, Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Mount Sinai, Egypt, Machu Picchu, Peru and peaks in Montana. 

The happiest voyages I made in the U.S. merchant marine were in the "missionary service" of the United States, delivering humanitarian goods to many underdeveloped nations in Africa, South America and the Far East. At the time, some 100 US-flag commercial cargo ships were engaged in this silent service for many decades. Tens of thousands of tons of sacks of flower, wheat, lentils, beans, and tins of cooking oil were delivered worldwide. I was proud that my ship mates also adopted an orphanage in the port of Mombasa, Kenya, and helped to feed the needy in the streets of Maputo, Mozambique, Batumi, Republic of Georgia and other ports with private crew contributions on top of US government consignments to those ports as well. 

While commanding the SS Elizabeth Lykes during Operation Desert Storm, I founded the Save Our Ships Campaign, together with Betty Coerber of the Adopt-A-Ship program from Fond du Lac, WI. The campaign grew from the initial support of my crew and Betty’s classroom of 5th grade school children into a national grassroots campaign of some 30,000 Americans in support of enabling legislation to save the core of our vanishing US-flag commercial shipping fleet and jobs under the threat of extinction. The Maritime Security Act of 1996 was finally passed after 6 years of national educational campaign, walking the halls of Congress, the White House and the Pentagon, working together with many US maritime organizations, media, maritime academies, advanced training institutes, organized labor, families, ships at sea and the Apostleship of the Sea of the USA. 

Today, about a fleet of about 70 large multipurpose US flagships, supporting the critical mass of our US fleet, US seafarer pool and their families, are currently enrolled in the nation's Maritime Security Fleet (MSF) program. The MSF forms the heart of a robust US Flag fleet of some 1000 ships in the domestic, international and reserve fleet capable of serving the humanitarian, military and commercial needs of the nation. 

During the Save Our Ships Campaign years, I became a personal friend with Fr. Sinclair Oubre, a passionate Catholic Priest, and President of the Apostleship of the Sea of the USA, and his many colleagues who linked up with our grassroots coalition to advocate for seafarers’ jobs and safe working conditions for all merchant mariners. Even today, the fight to preserve the "Jones Act Fleet", the Maritime Security Fleet Program, Cargo Preference Laws, and our US maritime academies, maritime Labor, and our advance maritime educational research and development programs must continue unabated, in order to advance US economic and national security. 

After becoming a marine pilot with the Mobile Bar Pilots, at Fr. Oubre's request, I accepted the position as mariner representative on the Board of the Apostleship of the Sea of the USA (AOSUSA) in 2003.  During subsequent years I was proud to see the AOSUSA successfully launch the Cruise Ship Priests program, to minister to passenger and crew serving in the US passer ship trade. 

As an offshoot of my association with AOSUSA, I have been honored to minister in small ways to seafarers of many nationalities and them to me, while serving as a Mobile Bar Pilot. I am even more strengthened and edified by the many good crews of many flags now, working under extreme hardships, with smiles and positive attitudes, who find themselves far away from home to provide financial support for family and loved ones and service to nation. Since September 11th, stringent new regulations in many US ports combined with economic restraints have unfortunately made seafarers’ visits ashore for shopping, phoning home, and attending religious services in US seaports more difficult than ever.

These are issues that need attention and resolution over the months and years ahead. This is where AOS, state and local authorities must come together for common sense solutions to better serve our many merchant marine visitors to US seaports every year. The valued service seafarers provide to our communities, national economy, and global trade needs to be recognized as well. 

That is why it is so important that the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for seafarers and all people of the sea is celebrated in the USA every May 22nd. We should never forget their sacrifices, lives lost in war and in peace, and their continuous contribution as merchant marines to their families and nation, as we seek to overcome the new dangers, including piracy, wars, natural disasters, economic privation, and political unrest and hot spots around the oceans of the world in which they navigate. 

May God bless and protect all in the merchant marine, in the service of the sea, ashore or afloat, and keep them in our prayers on National Maritime Day this year and every year.