A few years ago, Deacon Dileep Athaide could never have guessed he’d become a frequent visitor on the immense coal and container ships dotting the horizon in Delta and Vancouver.

Yet nearly every day he finds himself donning a hard hat, reflective vest, and steel-toed boots, chatting with security guards who recognize his white collar; and climbing high ladders into cargo ships as a chaplain to seafarers.

“It’s only three years that I’ve been doing this, but it feels like 10 years – in a good way,” Deacon Athaide, 69, told The B.C. Catholic while on board a Japanese coal carrier at Westshore Terminals in Delta.

The crew on this ship – about two dozen in all – are from the Philippines, and have spent months away from their families, religious customs, and country to work.

“For the seafarers, it’s a paradox. In order to look after their families, they leave their families.” They may make anywhere from US$ 12,000 to 150,000 a year, but even those on the lower end of the scale are grateful for the job, since it’s often more than they would make back at home.

Still, the work can be incredibly isolating. Being stuck on a ship several storeys high, thousands of kilometres from home, and at times waiting an entire month to set foot on land, is a daily challenge for seafarers.

Deacon Athaide boards these vessels to offer prayers, rosaries, ship blessings, a listening ear, and a free ride out of the port to a nearby mall or church. As a deacon, he can’t celebrate Mass or hear confessions, but he can invite a priest on board, or bring Communion and lead a service.

He also drops off day-old treats donated from Cobs bakery, and on special occasions, like Christmas, gives away thousands of gift-wrapped toques, scarves, jackets, and chocolate bars

“The pastoral and the practical needs are all intertwined. It’s through the practical means that they open up and you get a relationship.”

The deacon delivers free Cobs bread twice weekly to the ports.

Living unseen

Seafarers connect the world. Coal ships at Westshore Terminals handle more than 30 million tonnes of coal per a year. Last year, Canada’s largest port, Vancouver, handled 147 million-or-so tonnes of imports and exports – cars, coal, grain, oil, sugar, tech – valued at $200 billion.

These 20-foot or 40-foot containers, thousands aboard every ship, carry “anything from specialty cars to furniture to televisions,” said Deacon Dileep. “The laptop you own, they didn’t fly it here. It wasn’t manufactured in Canada or the United States. It was manufactured in Korea or China somewhere.”

Though they provide a bridge to the world, seafarers themselves are disconnected. Only recently has WiFi become readily available on board, and, inspectors aside, Deacon Athaide may be the only visitor these sailors entertain for months.

The men usher Deacon Athaide through the galley and into the officers’ mess, where the higher-paid crew gather to eat. The cook’s assistant quickly distributes a few water bottles (with labels indicating they travelled all the way from Japan) and soon brings out lunch: fried noodles, fresh salad, and a sausage-egg-meatloaf combination.

Whenever he meets a crew member, Deacon Athaide asks: “How are you? Is everything okay?” The response is often “fine,” but he’s ready to listen, say a prayer, and offer consolation any time a serious situation arises. In just three years, several have.

“About six months ago, a chief cook died a day before coming here.” The man, practically in sight of the port, had run out of critical medication too soon. Another time, a chief engineer had a heart attack and died at sea, also one day before his Vancouver arrival.

In both cases, Deacon Athaide offered to bless the ship with holy water and prayed for the men who were traumatized after the deaths. “If they were at home, they would be at Mass with their family, with their kids,” he said.

Deacon Athaide meets crew members aboard a Japanese coal ship.

“That’s why I like to wear my collar. It’s that comfort level, and it reminds them if they have forgotten that they can still practise their faith.”

An estimated 50 per cent of seafarers are not Catholic; he does not hesitate to offer a listening ear or free pastries, and is surprised and pleased when they ask for prayer, too.

“Port ministry is not just saying Mass on a ship, much like how campus ministry isn’t just saying Mass in the campus chapel or prison ministry is saying Mass in the prison. It is a pastoral ministry.”

Unexpected journey

Spending his free time on cargo ships wasn’t exactly Deacon Athaide’s retirement plan. A man of many interests, Deacon Athaide has been a geologist, professor, labour leader, and even a thoroughbred horse owner. Chaplaincy came as a surprise.

Born in a devout Catholic suburb of Bombay, India, Athaide was deeply rooted in his faith from a young age. He would pray the Rosary with his family every day, but didn’t consider becoming a priest and had never heard of permanent deacons.

He was 14 years old when his family immigrated to Canada in 1964. “Montreal was super Catholic at the time. We came to a Montreal where, if you were five minutes late for church, you couldn’t find a seat.”

After Grade 11, Athaide went directly into first-year engineering at McGill University. He changed gears in his second year when he discovered a love for geology after taking a single course on the subject, completed a geology degree at McGill, then moved to B.C. in 1971 for graduate studies at UBC.

There, once again, he found himself in a vibrant Catholic community; this time, thanks to the Basilian priests at St. Mark’s College and the Catholic young adults he tried to minister to between classes.

As a graduate student, he also discovered he loved to teach, and earned a teaching certificate. He spent the next few decades teaching geology and adult basic education at Capilano University and UBC.

Athaide had a heart for service. When he noticed a trend of young adults travelling overseas to do mission work, he founded the Communitas International Volunteer Society. The registered Canadian charity sent volunteers to a developing country for one year at a time, and it was while travelling with his organization that he met his wife. “I didn’t go looking for a wife, and neither was she looking. We were older; I was 34 and she was 29.”

He and Malvina, a nurse, raised three children. When their youngest was only 7 years old, Malvina diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died in 2004. Athaide continued teaching at Capilano and UBC, then went on to work for the Canadian Labour Congress (and to teach courses on that subject, too).

In 2011, Archbishop J. Michael Miller released a letter to announce he was restoring the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Vancouver. Permanent deacons, he wrote, would have a theology degree and run a variety of parish and other ministries, including being allowed to officiate at marriages and funerals and preach homilies.  

Deacon Athaide at the Sacred Heart Parish chapel after Mass.

Athaide, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Delta, talked to his pastor about it. “I remember him saying: ‘Go for it!’ It seemed to be a natural kind of thing and a great opportunity. I had lost my wife seven years prior, and I got to a stage where I realized I’m probably not going to get married again. It seemed like a natural opportunity.”

He registered and spent four years in formation through the Permanent Diaconate program at St. Mark’s College. He became one of the first permanent deacons ordained in the local Church in 2015. Now, 24 men serve as deacons and there are another 10 currently in formation.

“The level of interest in the permanent diaconate seems to have increased recently because more and more people are seeing for themselves how deacons serve,” said Msgr. Gregory Smith, the director of the program.

“Certainly, the need for deacons is beyond doubt – as parishes evolve, we’re hearing from pastors who need their support, and Archdiocesan ministries to the poor and marginalized continue to develop.”

Information sessions for men - married or unmarried - interested in becoming permanent deacons are coming to St. Nicholas Parish in Langley April 6 and May 25 and to St. Mark's College in Vancouver April 13 and 11. The half-day programs are mandatory for anyone interested in applying to become a deacon. (More information is available at www.rcav.org/permanent-diaconate).

After his ordination, Athaide was given the mission of reaching out to seafarers. It’s been a long, unexpected journey, but one he finds incredibly rewarding.

“Five years ago, I never would have imagined I would do this port ministry, and yet it seems so natural to me,” said Deacon Athaide, who boarded 260 ships and met 5,500 crew members in 2018 alone.

“I feel so blessed. When I do stuff with the seafarers, they are so grateful. And I think: who is ministering to whom? At the end of the day, I am so tired, but it’s a good feeling.”