Pastor to the Port

In the changing world of the Houston Ship Channel, one thing remains constant: Father Rivers Patout.

Some salty dogs have simple ambitions. The Reverend Mike McGraw, a Methodist minister at the center, saw three seamen walking toward Pasadena a few weeks ago. They were Latvians, fresh off the ship and out for the day. "I asked where they were going," he says. "They said, 'Wal-Mart.' So I gave them a ride."

It's not exactly a repeat of the tale of the Good Samaritan, but it's close enough for many of the port's visitors. Meanwhile, Patout's time is not entirely spent boarding ships, greeting captains and interceding for sailors. To keep the Seafarers' Center afloat he also has to glad-hand politicians and business moguls along the Ship Channel. He golfs with members of the Propeller Club, a shipping industry group, and keeps in touch with the necessary politicians. On a recent Tuesday, Patout visited ships along Barbours Cut near Morgans Point before hurrying to Brady's Landing for the monthly meeting of yet another industry group, the Transportation Club, where he was scheduled to give the pre-lunch blessing. After scarfing down lunch, he went to Harris County Commissioner Jim Fonteno's office, since he was to give the opening blessing at the weekly meeting of Commissioners Court.

Fonteno and Patout are old acquaintances dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Fonteno was a port commissioner. They shoot the breeze before the meeting, an exchange that includes a Patout joke involving a stutterer and a man with prostate cancer (the punch line: "I pee like you talk."), a discussion of the proposed dredging and widening of the Ship Channel and an update on the new bridge to replace the Baytown-La Porte Tunnel.

But the main topic is the old days. Patout tells a surprised Fonteno that Kirby McDowell, longtime leader of the National Maritime Union, recently died. "I buried him last week," Patout says, adding that the funeral should have been attended by county officials and received more than the minimal publicity it did. Fonteno mentions another old-time union leader, Paul Drozak of the Seafarers International, who died more than 10 years ago. "I buried him, too," Patout says.

Later, Patout recalls how McDowell and Drozak had "their horror stories" about union struggles in the '50s and '60s. "Then they were negotiating from a tough point of view, whereas now the unions have almost no strength to negotiate from," he says. "The owners feel pretty much like they can do what they want and get away with it." After considering his comments, Patout qualifies his interpretation. "I think there's a real need for unions and I think there's a real abuse of power by unions," he says. "It's a cyclical thing."

Once through with his powwow with Fonteno, Patout heads out to bless the opening of commissioners court. County Judge Jon Lindsay introduces Patout and glibly plugs an upcoming fundraising gala for the Seafarers' Center. "Tell us about what's coming up next Saturday," Lindsay primes Patout as the priest stands at the speaker's podium. Patout mentions the gala and turns to the standing-room-only audience, which is waiting to hear the tax hike debated. "We'd love to have you come," he tells the crowd. "It's only a hundred and a quarter. That's cheaper than taxes." The remark triggers a burst of laughter that barely dies down as Patout begins his prayer.

The laughter aside, the gala is important to Patout. Though his salary and the salary of the other chaplains who work out of the Seafarers' Center are paid by their denominations, the fundraising is needed to make sure the rest of the center's costs are covered.

On a recent Monday night, Patout circulates through the more than 50 seafarers, ringing bells to announce an 8 p.m. Mass in the adjoining chapel. He gets seven takers, the other 50 or so preferring to drink beer, smoke cigarettes or watch television. Some nights nobody shows, and he has to cancel Mass. "It doesn't bother me at all," Patout says of the no-shows. "When I got into the priesthood I had no idea what I was going find, but I did want to serve people. I see that as not necessarily teaching them the Our Father or giving them communion."

In those early days, serving others was of such importance to Patout that he says he would have joined the Peace Corps, had it existed in 1960 when he graduated from Notre Dame. But it didn't, so now he lives to serve the seafarers, and appears to be as comfortable on his car phone driving down to Barbours Cut as he is saying mass or hearing confession. Jesus had a list of corporal works of mercy to go along with the spiritual works of mercy, so Patout feels servicing the worldly needs of the needy is fulfilling his calling.

"Taking people shopping, driving buses, helping them make phone calls are all corporal works of mercy, but I don't distinguish that from the spiritual motivation to do it," he says. And sometimes the activities are not mutually exclusive. Just last week Patout was leaving to run errands when he offered to drive a Filipino sailor downtown to the post office so he could mail a package to his sister for Christmas. That saved the sailor money over a special delivery service and led to the sailor discussing his trip to Fatima and asking Patout questions about his religious doubts. "I had started to do something with no suspicion it had a spiritual side and ended up having quite a deep conversation with this Filipino about his faith," says Patout.

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