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Father Rivers Patout is cruising his domain, but he's nowhere near a church or a school. Instead, the slightly pudgy Catholic priest is driving his late model Honda Accord across the uneven pavement of Wharf 14 along the Houston Ship Channel, providing an unsolicited narrated tour to a blue jumpsuited German chief engineer who had earlier requested a ride back to his ship.
"Those are molasses tanks on the other side; they're not full of oil," Patout points out to the bearded German, who doesn't bother to feign interest. The chief engineer's ship, the Brocken, is headed out to Lake Charles tomorrow, then England, then the Black Sea, then Turkey, then back to Houston. "This one is the oldest grain dock in the port," Patout continues as he navigates his way around the potholes along the city docks. "The conveyor belt is not used much anymore."
In broken German, Patout (pronounced pa-too) tries to make conversation about his recent trip to Dresden and Poland, though his passenger, who's from what was formerly East Germany, barely responds. When the car stops, the engineer quickly steams up the steps of the gangway to the ship, not bothering to wait for the 56-year-old priest, who will follow him aboard to do what he has been doing for the last 26 years as chaplain of the Houston port's Barbours Cut Seafarers' Center.
Since 1968, Rivers Patout has covered the waterfront, although in Houston that means something far different than the Hollywood version of longshoremen and loading docks epitomized in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront. Patout is no Karl Malden, no tough guy priest ready to confront any evil "Johnny Friendly" out to rule the docks. The affable and upbeat Patout has a different mission, one that is a mix of greeter, counselor and advocate for the 50,000 or more seafarers who pass through the Port of Houston, the nation's third largest. His demeanor is not unlike that of an irrepressible salesman, not put off by language barriers, cultural differences or disinterest. The priest with the reddish-gray hair and mustache is not about to take no for an answer when he greets captains or their crews.
But in recent years, Patout's job has grown more problematic. On one level, he fits the bill of a traditional Catholic cleric: a Notre Dame-educated priest doing the Lord's work among those in need of comfort and aid. Now, though, he is also an American First Worlder dealing with a growing number of Second and Third World seamen with whom he has little in common. Patout is fluent in Spanish and familiar with the Hispanic community he has worked in for years in the East End, but that no longer serves him as well as it once did. The majority of seamen who now set anchor in Houston are Filipino, Asian or Eastern European, and they're all foreign turf for Patout.
Still, Patout works his rounds, often finding success in unexpected places. In the case of the seemingly gruff German chief engineer, Patout's patter and free ride at first glance appeared unappreciated. But that night the engineer showed up at the Seafarers' Center, where he sat at the bar writing postcards, drinking beer and occasionally glancing up as the Broncos and Bills clashed on Monday Night Football.
The German engineer may have been at the center for solace, but Patout knows it's just as likely he was there because it was the only place to go. Though photos of Houston's skyline behind the Ship Channel's turning basin often make it appear that downtown is a short stroll from the port, it's actually more than four miles as the crow flies, and barely accessible for sailors whose sole mode of transportation may be their feet. For many of the sailors who float into the Ship Channel, "Houston" is basically the port. Some may make a foray to the nearest strip mall in Pasadena, but more likely the city is seen as little more than a piece of solid ground on which to stretch their sea legs. That, and the Seafarers' Center run by Rivers Patout.
Whether Houston's chief Catholic cleric, Bishop John Morkovsky, knew it or not in 1968, he picked the right man to start the Seafarers' Center. Even Patout's name seemed predestined for the job, since "rivers" usually end up linked to the sea. Actually, the priest is Rivers Patout III, named after his father and grandfather. "Rivers" was likely a surname of someone the family knew when they were in Louisiana. However aquatic his name, Patout certainly had little clue when he left Navasota to attend Notre Dame that his destiny would be bound up with the Port of Houston. Instead, he had a vague plan to become a lawyer.
After graduating from Notre Dame, Patout returned to Houston and St. Mary's Seminary on Memorial Drive. As he entered the seminary, Mass was still being said in Latin. When he graduated, his class was the first to say it in English. Just a year out of the seminary and flush with the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II, a young Patout was assigned to Blessed Sacrament Parish on Sherman Street, where he helped form a group of East End Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran ministers to coordinate social and church services in the East End, near the Ship Channel. Then the interfaith group was approached by a sailor who asked why Houston didn't have a seafarers center like other ports. A lay group was already interested in such a place, but had no money. So the ministers started visiting the ships and Patout approached Bishop Morkovsky for funds. He was given $50,000; the Port Authority then donated some land.