WNYCatholic File Photo - Father John Ducette, chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea for the Diocese of Buffalo, blesses an Erie County Sheriff boat on the Erie Canal during the annual Blessing of Boats.
Every year in June, Msgr. John Ducette marches down to the Erie Canal to bless the boats that pass through on their way to Lake Erie. As chaplain for the Apostleship of the Sea, it is his job to pray for the safety and salvation of all seafarers.
The Apostleship of the Sea reaches out to mariners, fishers, their families and all those who travel the waterways of the world. The chaplains try to accommodate the unique lifestyle of these people, serving the way a parish priest would, offering sacraments, prayer and kindness.
Back in the 1930s, Buffalo would see 2,000 vessels coming in to its port. The construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the ’50s allowed many ships to bypass the Erie Canal. That and a decline in local industry has greatly reduced the commercial travel through these parts, and the role of the apostleship.
“I’ve ministered whenever they call on me,” Msgr. Ducette said. “For instance, when they first dedicated the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. There are the Little Rock and the Sullivans. I was there on the day of the dedication and blessed both vessels, and I blessed the monuments they put on that property since then.”
Msgr. Ducette has occasionally worked with the Coast Guard. He was asked to do a blessing at the Buffalo Yacht Club a couple years ago, and has been known to help sailors with more personal needs as well.
“I’m available to do any sort of priestly ministry to anyone on the seashore who would call me. And I’m committed to pray for the safety and salvation of seafarers wherever they are in the world,” he said.
At 76 years old, Msgr. Ducette still has a love for the water and takes his duties as chaplain very seriously, but admits he receives few calls.
“Not many these days,” he said bluntly. “Our country is becoming more and more secular, and the religious ceremonies are not too appreciated by the secular community. So I don’t get too many calls. But if they call me, I go.”
The international organization came to the Port of Buffalo on May 28, 1963, with Msgr. Edmund J. Britt as the first local chaplain. His successors include Father Thomas Devine and Msgr. Leo McCarthy. A longtime interest in boating led Msgr. Ducette to take over the chaplaincy after Msgr. McCarthy in 1978. He also has served as a chaplain for Town of Tonawanda police since 1985. That role allows him to carry a badge and celebrate an annual Mass for officers. If they need a priest, he goes. And although he enjoys both roles, he thinks they are more suitable for a younger man.
“I’m an old man,” he said, recounting a story of having to climb a ladder to board a tall commercial vehicle that offered no gangplank. “That’s pretty tough for an old geezer.”
Recently, while celebrating the noon Mass at St. Mary of the Cataract in Niagara Falls, he asked people to pray for the safety of tightrope walker Nik Wallenda as he attempted to cross the falls.
He offers the daredevil the same advice he gives to boaters in the Niagara River. “The river is not treacherous, but it is unforgiving of any mistake or neglect. When you challenge nature, like Mr. Wallenda is doing, if you make a mistake, you’re going to pay for it.”
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