Father Leskovar
Father Leskovar
Rev. Richard Leskovar has played ping-pong with Danes, dined on authentic cuisine with people from China and celebrated Masses for Indian and Filipino Catholics - without leaving Albany.

For more than five years, the retired diocesan priest has given his time to the Albany Maritime Ministry, an ecumenical organization whose volunteers meet foreign crew members of ships pulling into the Port of Albany and other ports along the Hudson River and down to Coeymans.

The organization, which has been around since 1992, sells phone cards to the seafarers, makes phones available aboard ships and in its office inside the Port's building, and brings the travelers on shopping trips.

"We're almost like a welcoming committee," Father Leskovar said. "We'll be almost the first people they're going to encounter. The function is to try to meet their needs."

Albany is among the smaller U.S. ports, annually accommodating 50 to 100 ships that import items like molasses, paper, salt and bananas and export grain, scrap metal, General Electric products and more. The port is open 365 days a year and stores about three days' worth of fuel.

But "most people hardly even know the port was there," said Father Leskovar.

He had never thought of ministering to seafarers before hearing about the Albany Maritime Ministry from a choir member at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Delmar, where the senior priest assists on weekends.

More than half of the workers who stop in Albany are from the Philippines; Maritime Ministry volunteers also see crews from Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Myanmar, China, India, Denmark and elsewhere.

They meet crew members who have made their living aboard ships for decades and who don't see their families for six to nine months at a time. Modern technology, including Skype videoconferencing software, helps a bit.

"It's a tough life, but it isn't as bad as it used to be," Father Leskovar said.

The Maritime Ministry office recently moved from South Pearl Street to the port. The space is smaller now, but still has room for a ping-pong table, a few tables, computers and phones.

The crews are also smaller than they were in years past and spend less time in ports, said the Rev. William Hempel, a retired Lutheran pastor in Albany who serves as the group's chaplain.

"It's a very demanding and, I think, very difficult job," Rev. Hempel said of the seafarers' work transporting cargo. "They're not really recognized. Ninety percent of everything winds up going on a boat. Everybody has been dependent on maritime stuff for years and years.

"Ours is a ministry of welcoming and hospitality," he continued.

Maritime Ministry has about 20 volunteers. Clergy bless ships when asked. If non-Christians are on board a ship, the ministry connects them to appropriate faith leaders. Father Leskovar has been the most active Catholic clergyman (although Rev. Peter Young, another retired priest of the Diocese and the head of Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment, is rumored to have arranged soccer matches for banana ship crews decades ago).

Father Leskovar has celebrated a few Masses on ships and escorted crew to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany. He stocks the Maritime Ministry office with religious medals, holy cards and rosaries he obtains from local parishes and one in Binghamton.

Religion is "not the first thing on their minds, nor is it on mine" when meeting crew members, Father Leskovar said, but he's ready to serve if he perceives a need. More common requests are help contacting home and shopping for items at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. The ministry has a 14-passenger van it uses to chauffeur workers who have visas. St. Thomas and other area churches collect toiletries, books, candy and other gifts for the ministry's Christmas at Sea program.

When the Dutch vessel Stellamare overturned in the port in 2003, killing three workers, the Maritime Ministry held a memorial service. The volunteers still hear from survivors. The ministry also gets involved in justice issues for maritime workers and intervenes if they are being mistreated, Rev. Hempel said.

He has wired money home for the people he meets and accompanied one Russian with appendicitis to the hospital. The man's ship left him in Albany; he knew no English and had no interpreter, but smiled widely when the pastor handed him phone cards.

Every ship has at least one English-speaking crew member, so communication is not usually a problem.

The Albany Maritime Ministry, which has an annual budget of $35,000, is part of a network of similar organizations overseen by the North American Maritime Ministry Association. It has a six-person board of directors and relies on contributions and grants for funding. The treasurer is a parishioner of St. Thomas.

Father Leskovar sees himself as a Catholic presence in the port, but doesn't always wear his collar or mention he's a priest. "Just being able to interact with people who are in need," he said, "is its own self-reward."