Monday, May 16, 2011

The Chaplain

The Reverend Father Raymond Auger made every voyage aboard the State of Maine.  A very well-educated and cultured man, he enjoyed traveling and visiting the various countries of the world while tending to the spiritual needs of the seamen in training.  Despite a chronic inclination toward seasickness, the good Father never wavered in sailing with his flock.  In a calm sea he did just fine.  When the Atlantic kicked up even mildly, though, he suffered terribly.  He couldn’t eat; he couldn’t sleep; sometimes he could barely stand up.  But the man had guts, and he never let this condition get the better of him.  He just said a prayer and kept going.

Father Auger’s home base was not at sea but close to it.  Originally from Biddeford, on the coast of Maine, he received his education inland at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont and Le Grand Seminaire de Montreal in Quebec.  Of French-Canadian heritage, he was bilingual in French and English.  In the time that I knew him, he was serving in two small parishes in Castine and Stonington, farther northeast on the Maine coast.  Beautiful but isolated places, Stonington was a fishing port, and Castine was the site of the school that trained prospective mates and engineers for the Merchant Marine.  In May, June, and July of each year, the training ship State of Maine ventured forth from her berth in Castine and took a contingent of these mates- and engineers-to-be with her.  Father Auger went with them and served as the chaplain aboard ship, and a substitute priest took his place temporarily in the two shoreside parishes.

Everyone loved Father Auger.  A Catholic priest, he had a certain way about him, a gift for striking up friendships with all people regardless of their stations in life or their religious affiliations.  Shipboard personnel of all faiths or of no faith at all were drawn to him.  He had a naturally outgoing and charismatic personality which attracted others.  More significantly, however, everyone recognized that regardless of denominational differences, Father Auger represented something good, something of a higher and better nature, something to which all people could aspire, and something that would reach out to them and raise them up.  In a social environment that too often encompassed much of the seamy side of life, Father Auger stood out as the proverbial light that shone in the darkness.  Even the crustiest of the old salts had to give him his due.  As David Lipsky, a Jewish friend of mine, expressed it, “That priest of yours—he sure is a great guy.  He’s super nice to everyone, no matter who they are or what religion they are.  He almost makes me wish I wasn’t Jewish!”

Because everyone loved Father Auger, their hearts went out to him when the ocean gave him a hard time.  Empathy and admiration intertwined with one another when his flock saw the good Father persevering through a bad day.  One Sunday during a transatlantic voyage, Father Auger was offering Mass for the off-duty personnel.  The table which he used as an altar was, of course, welded to the deck.  As the State of Maine rolled alternately to port and then to starboard, Father Auger, with a pained expression on his face, paused in his prayers, leaned forward, and gripped the edges of the table.  When the rolling eased off, he straightened up and resumed the service, but the pained expression remained.  During the Prayer of the Faithful, in which the congregation’s petitions are offered to the Almighty, Father Auger prayed almost in exasperation, “Let us ask God in his mercy to please make these seas calm down!  A glance out the window revealed a moderate following sea with some whitecaps—not that bad, really.  This professional analysis aside, Father Auger’s prayer was answered.  The State of Maine outran the weather, and the voyage became more tranquil.

When not conducting services or taking his meals, Father Auger would often roam the ship.  He seemed to especially enjoy visiting the bridge and chartroom.  He would study the navigational plot and watch with admiration as a legion of apprentice navigators took stars at twilight and then worked out their myriad calculations.  He seemed to especially like watching the sun set at sea, too.  When the weather permitted, sunrise and sunset were always momentous and artful occasions.  They were also good opportunities for taking amplitudes and calculating compass error.  Father Auger visited the engine room, too, but never lingered in the heat and noise of “the pit” the way he did on the bridge.  As much as he admired the skill and determination of the engineers that got boilers, steam turbines, reduction gears, and propeller shafts to work in harmony and move the vessel through the water, it was not the same thing.  No one lingered in the engine room to admire the view.

Wherever he went, though, Father Auger always checked up on his boys.  “How’s it going, fellas?” he would greet everyone.  “Are you getting all your work done?”  Then he would joke,  “What’s the weather forecast?  Is the sea going to stay calm like this?  I sure don’t want to go through more of the rough stuff we had the other day!”  Sometimes he chatted merrily with the guys on watch.  At other times, though, he gazed silently upon the water with an expression of wonderment on his face.  I think that the good Father, as a committed man of God, must have felt the Spirit in those quiet moments.  Perhaps the still small voice came to him over the sea when it was calm.

Father Auger checked up on his boys ashore, too.  He knew that seamen got into more trouble on land than they did on water; hence, an even greater need for a chaplain.  The good Father’s method usually involved a chance encounter with one or two of the guys which then grew into a larger group.  He would typically open up with, “Hey, fellas!  You want to get something to eat?”  Of course, they said “yes” right away.  “Let’s see if we can find some more of the guys from the ship and we can get a nice dinner.  There’s a hotel on the next corner with a good dining room.”  By just walking the street and picking out familiar faces, the dinner group would grow to include a dozen or more of “the guys from the ship,” and the generous Father would treat everyone to a full dinner and dessert.  He would never accept any money for this; at his insistence it was always his treat.

Newcomers to the State of Maine would wonder how a man of the cloth could afford to be so generous.  The answer was quite simple.  Father Auger came from a wealthy family.  He was the only child of parents who had died when he was still a young man, and the inheritance came to him early.  Too early, really.  He described once how to his great dismay both his parents had died only a few months prior to his graduation from the Grand Seminaire and his ordination to the priesthood.  It was a bitter blow at the beginning of his ministry, but he submitted himself to the Lord’s will and carried on.  The money he used for good purposes involving other people.  For himself, he lived a simple and humble lifestyle.  For others, nothing was too good.

One group for whom nothing was too good was the girls.  Father Auger always insisted that his boys behave properly in the presence of young ladies.  At the conclusion of one dinner gathering, in Funchal, Madeira, two of the boys got up to leave when two American girls whom they had met previously came into the hotel dining room.  As they left, the conscientious Father called after them in a tone that was at once good-natured but serious, “Be good!  Behave like gentlemen!  Treat those girls with the respect they deserve!”  The two boys dutifully replied, “Yes, Father.”  The two girls, evidently empowered, replied, “Thank you, Father.  We’ll make sure they behave.”

I made two voyages two years apart from each other with Father Auger aboard the State of Maine.  By the time of my second voyage with him, he had been reassigned from his two parishes in Stonington and Castine to an inland parish in Sanford, Maine.  Nonetheless, he retained the Bishop’s approval to continue his yearly sailings aboard the State of Maine.  At the end of the second voyage he returned to his new assignment in Sanford, and I did not expect to have any further contact with him.

Fortunately, this expectation proved wrong.  I had no occasion to travel to Sanford until after I met Miss Patty, the girl whom I would marry.  On my first visit to this town, I attended Sunday Mass with Miss Patty and her grandmother.  Spotting me in the congregation before the Mass started, the enthusiastic Father introduced me as “one of the boys from Castine” to the entire assembly.  This was the first of many pleasant meetings with him.  The culmination of this relationship came on the 19th of June, 1981, when Father Auger celebrated our wedding Mass in Saint Ignatius Church in Sanford.

As an unmarried priest with no family of his own, Father Auger made a tremendous sacrifice in order to spend his life doing the Lord’s work as he understood it.  He willingly gave up what the rest of us would consider a normal life with a home of his own, a career, a wife, children, and eventually, grandchildren.  When asked about this once, the good Father cited a verse from the scriptures and focused not on sacrifices he made but on blessings he received: 

And everyone that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life (Matt. 19:29).

Father Auger asserted that this promise was “absolutely true” and listed blessings, opportunities, and friendships that had come to him through his priestly vocation.  Furthermore, many of these were made possible only because of his position as a clergyman; otherwise, they never would have come his way.  He counted his opportunity to sail aboard the State of Maine each year as one of these blessings.  Had he not been qualified to serve as chaplain, he would not have had any business aboard the ship and would never have made the annual voyages.  He wrote off his chronic inclination toward seasickness as a small price to pay for such a great opportunity.

This one weakness brings to mind a scriptural verse with which Father Auger might not have been familiar but is fitting nonetheless:

I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them (Ether 12:27).

For those of us who had the honor of knowing him, it was abundantly clear that Father Raymond Auger was a humble man, a grace-filled man, and a faithful man.  He was also a very generous, kind, and patient man whose attentions were always focused on others.  He never asked for anything for himself.  In fact, he seldom talked about himself.  What we learned of his family and educational background he revealed only on direct inquiry.  When the Atlantic Ocean roughed him up and made him feel sick, Father Auger humbled himself before God and prayed for the ability to carry on.  He never complained.  In this way his weakness became his strength and earned him the admiration of everyone on board.  In the straightforward language of the sea, the good Father was a spiritual superstar.

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