For a United Church chaplain on his first naval posting, it was a “real baptism by fire.”
So says Padre (Major) Mike Gibbons, 37, recounting the evening of February 27, 2014, aboard HMCS Protecteur. The supply ship was 600 kilometres out of Pearl Harbor when a large fire suddenly engulfed its engine room, crippling its power supply, as four-metre waves tossed the darkened, disabled ship around.
“It was a very intense event,” he says, noting it was the worst fire on a Canadian Navy ship in 45 years. As the only chaplain aboard, Gibbons at first handed out water and food to crew members fighting a fire so intense if would melt the glass in their protective helmets. But it soon became apparent the men and women of the Protecteur wanted something much more from him as chaplain.
Gibbons sat on a little green bench and a line quickly formed, as crew members took turns seeking spiritual counsel. “They were facing very large, spiritual questions about life and death,” he says.
Thankfully, after an exhausting 11-hour battle, the blaze was put out, leaving the ship without power. As Gibbons noted in an online account written for Touchstone Canada, “bravery, courage, and hope overcame darkness, smoke and fire,” without even a single crew member hurt in the battle.
Gibbons’ work didn’t stop there. Over the next six days when the stricken ship was towed to port in Pearl Harbor, he stayed aboard the powerless Protecteur so that he could continue to comfort crew members, passing up the chance to transfer to a fully functioning, comfortable craft.
On Sunday, March 2, he held a worship service aboard the Protecteur, and was pleased to see a large crowd attend. His Touchstone Canada article noted that he lead the crew in the singing of Eternal Father, Strong to Save (known as the Naval Hymn), which included the line, “O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.”
Gibbons’ actions aboard the Protecteur won the praise of United Church Moderator Jordan Cantwell. “By putting the emotional needs of your fellow crewman before your own, you truly lived out the teachings of Christ,” she wrote in a letter to the padre in April.
Senior staff with the Royal Canadian Navy were also very grateful for the role he played during the crisis. In March, Gibbons was recommended for the Meritorious Service Medal, which “recognizes a military deed or activity performed in a highly professional manner, according to a very high standard that brings benefit or honour to the Canadian Forces.”
Or in the words of Rear-Admiral Gilles Couturier: “You are a go get ’hem kind of chaplain, the type we need!”
When asked if he is a hero, Gibbons laughs, and says he was only “doing what every chaplain in a crisis hopes to do, and that is to help people stay in the fight.”
Canada's Governor-General will formally present Gibbons - now Senior Fleet Chaplain for Canadian military ships serving in the Pacific - with the medal on Oct. 5 at Rideau Hall.
Gibbons was in Esquimalt in May, 2015, when the Protecteur was “paid off” (a military term for decommissioned). He was the official chaplain for the event, and says he joked with fellow crew members about the “baptism of fire” he endured with them a year before.
“I told them that they really knew how to make an army chaplain feel at home on the sea,” Gibbons says.
-Paul Russell is Program Coordinator, Communications, in the office of the Moderator and General Secretary.