HOUSTON — The Rev. Rivers Patout III, a feisty Catholic priest who for four decades ‘‘burned the candle at three ends’’ to minister to sailors at the Houston International Seafarer’s Center, died Monday.
A Galveston native, Father Patout, 76, was the founding chaplain of the Port of Houston center, credited as the first such facility not associated with a single nation or religious group. Father Patout, who remained active, was also pastor of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church.
‘‘It has been more than a sad week around the port,’’ former seafarers’ center board director Tom Tellepsen said. ‘‘We elevate ourselves when we think of what a blessing it was to have the Rev. Patout come through our lives. The port is the greatest asset of this city, and Rivers was a port institution, no doubt about that. He was an icon.’’
In the late 1960s, Father Patout joined two other Houston clergymen — the Rev. Sam Duree, a Methodist, and the Rev. Taft Lyons, a Presbyterian — in discerning a need for a center that would not only provide religious support for sailors but a wide range of social and recreational opportunities. The center, which opened in 1972, provided a pool, track, and soccer field. It staged athletic competitions between ships’ crews and hosted dances.
‘‘Rivers was the most internationally and interfaith-
oriented,’’ said the Rev. Ben Stewart, the center’s Presbyterian chaplain. ‘‘He began to see the need for networking. Not only was he the standard-bearer, one of the founders, and the first chaplain, but he also was assigned a parish church. If anyone ever burned the candle at three ends, it was Rivers. He understood what the center’s meaning and mission could be: offering service to the men and women who have no voice and travel the world.’’
Father Patout, Stewart said, helped provide sailors ‘‘a place to get off those floating bombs, those big gas ships, to stand on dry ground and smell the grass, to see a face that wasn’t fuzzy, to have someone look at them and not accuse them of being terrorists.’’
Added Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who officiated at Father Patout’s Friday funeral Mass: ‘‘He touched the lives of thousands of men and women from across the world. His leadership, dedicated ministry to his parishioners, and his smile will be greatly missed.’’
Father Patout was ordained as a priest in 1967 and was pastor of several churches in the Galveston-Houston Catholic Archdiocese, including Blessed Sacrament, St. Joseph-St. Stephen, Holy Name, All Saints, St. Theresa, and St. Pius V.
‘‘The seafarers’ center wasn’t his only effort, but it was absolutely the centerpiece of his life,’’ said Pat Jasper, folk-life director of the Houston Arts Alliance, who met the priest while documenting the lives of port workers.
‘‘For him, his ministry went far beyond spreading the word of God. It was about serving people, taking them at face value, meeting their needs as they understood them, not as he understood them. He was pretty legendary in that world.’’
Father Patout was tough but compassionate, and, Stewart said, could strike fear in the heart of dock operators and guards when he believed they were infringing on sailors’ rights. One day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Father Patout was on the phone to authorities to work out ways that clergy could board the suddenly off-limits vessels.
‘‘The world was in chaos,’’ Stewart said. ‘‘Father Patout joined in with Homeland Security, Coast Guard, and the maritime association to make this work. He became a partner with them.’’
Once, a chaplain who had no contact with Father Patout other than phone conversations, expressed shock at their first face-to-face meeting. The minister had expected to encounter a ‘‘6-foot-4, well-muscled strongman,’’ Stewart remembered. What he actually met, the clergyman told Stewart, was a ‘‘garden gnome.’’
“Rivers was short and a little round, but he was a man who was persistent and incredibly committed,’’ Stewart said.
In a 2010 interview with Jasper, Father Patout related a tale that was emblematic of his ingenuity and understanding of human nature.
“I have a favorite story,’’ Father Patout said, explaining it involved a Cold War-era attempt to deliver Christmas gifts to Russian sailors beneath the suspicious eyes of a commissar charged with ensuring seamen’s anticapitalist purity. ‘‘They weren’t Christmas gifts then, because Christmas is a Christian holiday. But they celebrate New Year’s, and I said: ‘I want to bring them aboard for you. They’re made by the people of this community, and they want to share it with you.’ ”
“Nyet,’’ responded the commissar, a sinister personage out of central casting with pockmarked face, bushy mustache, and a fancy for pungent Russian cigarettes. At the urging of the ship’s captain, who was eager to receive the gifts, the commissar began to soften, agreeing that a sample package could be unwrapped for inspection. Out tumbled socks, combs, and writing paper.
‘‘We can’t accept because we don’t have a gift for you,’’ the commissar said. ‘‘Well,’’ Father Patout rejoined, ‘‘I’ll take a drink of vodka, you know.’’
‘We’ll take the gift’
A round of toasts began. ‘‘‘Toast to the American seafarers, toast to the Russian seafarers, toast to the friendship of all that gather,’ ’’ Father Patout recalled. ‘‘After a few toasts, they said, ‘OK, we’ll take the gift.’ ”
Father Patout responded negatively, insisting that there were many gifts for the entire crew. More toasts ensued. Finally, the bureaucrat relented, and the gifts were distributed.
“As I was about to leave,” Father Patout said, “I said, ‘Happy New Year!’ And the captain looks back and says, ‘Merry Christmas!’ It was a political game, you know, but that was very significant in the early days.’’
Father Patout leaves brothers Frank Patout Sr., of Houston, and John Patout, of Navasota, Texas; his sisters Elizabeth Stone, of Navasota, and Mary Deering, of Indianapolis.