This is the 13th year that Father Mario has performed a ritual "Blessing of the Ships;" although prior to that, he performed blessings as the chaplain of ships in Savannah, Ga.
Once called "the Archbishop of the Seven Seas," Father Mario visits the ships throughout the harbor at Port Newark on a daily basis.
The Blessing of the Ships comes each year during the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June. This year, the event was attended by a number of dignitaries.
For this year's ceremonies on June 29, the Coast Guard cutter moved in and out of the channels that make up Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, sailing its way down Newark Bay, past the Bayonne Bridge and Shooter's Island to the New York Container Terminal in Staten Island.
Most years, Father Mario makes his way around the harbor aboard a tugboat. But this year, when a tugboat was not available, the U.S. Coast Guard stepped in, sending over its ice breaking tugboat from its station on the east side of Bayonne.
At 88, Father Mario is hardly as spry as he once was, yet still manages to make daily visits to as many as 10 ships a day.
He puts in long hours - as many as 70 a week - and still finds time to plant vegetables and flowers around the Stella Maris Chapel at Port Newark.
"We had to get live traps this year because the rabbits got into his garden," said Father John Corbett, who also ministers to the sailors, "and he won't kill the rabbits. He wants them released someplace else."
Ministering to ships, lonely sailors
The priests from Stella Maris Chapel in Newark have managed to make nearly 2,500 visits to ships over the last year.
Father Mario doesn't drive anymore, so he enlists a number of drivers to help him get from ship to ship. Time is often an essential element since many ships dock for a few hours before moving on - a sharp change from the past when ships sometimes spent up to two weeks in port.
Father Mario recalls the dramatic changes brought to international shipping when containers became the predominant means of transport.
Despite cargo ships with as many as 4,000 containers on them, crews are generally small - with slightly more than a dozen crew members. Some sailors can be away from their homes for a year at a time.
Loneliness plagues sailors, who often miss their native lands and their families.
But sailors face a variety of very practical concerns involving worker relations, as well as the more spiritual aspects priests usually encounter.
These workers are often underpaid and overworked, and sometimes work in dangerous situations.
While they often can take their gripes to the International Labor Federation, sailors can find a strong ally in Father Mario, who frequently saves them from making costly mistakes, such as abandoning a ship and being left in port without a passport, working papers, or even wallets with cash.
Since operations are expanding in the port, Father Mario expects the woes of sailors to increase, as well.
Started out as a teacher
Balbi is a native of Brazil who grew up in Manaus in the Amazon rainforest. While this is almost 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, he said he used to greet the packboats when they arrived at his river town each month. A member of the Salesians Order of Don Bosco, Balbi was drawn in by the order's outreach program as a boy, and was ordained 60 years ago.
He began his religious career, however, teaching literature, French, and Latin. He speaks seven languages, and says he likes to talk to sailors in their own tongues.
Father Mario speaks Portuguese, Italian, English, French, Spanish, and German, and once claimed that he knows how to laugh in Korean.
In 1969, at the age of 52, Father Mario asked to be reassigned, and was sent to the Port of Savannah, where he ministered to sailors there for the next 20 years.
In 1990, when he was about to retire, Father Mario was invited to come to the Port of Newark. He did.
The church, at the time, was little more than a trailer and could barely hold 40 people.
Since then, a small chapel has been constructed on the site, allowing more than 100 people to attend. The construction of the chapel was funded mostly by donations and labor from workers at FAPS, a company that preps thousands of cars brought into the port from overseas each year.
Shortly before his death, John Lo Bue, the late owner of FAPS, promised to give Father Mario a new chapel, and the company delivered on its promise.
Once at the port, Father Mario learned not only about the ships, but also about the cargo, and knows about as much as anyone about what goods flow through the port.
Bayonne resident helped start fleet blessing
The annual blessing of the fleet in Port Newark came about in 1995, when Father Mario approached Gary Whyte, director of northeastern operations for Ecuadorian Line, who has since become the president of the Blessing of the Port Day. Father Mario asked to continue a tradition he had started in Savannah, and Whyte helped him accomplish it.
During the tour of the harbor, Father Mario often asked Lt. Scott Rae to toot the Coast Guard's cutter's horn, hoping to attract sailors to the decks to receive the blessing.
To help him with the yearly ritual, Father Mario invites other religious leaders to join him, which included Monsignor Francis Seymour, the secretary to Archbishop Gerrety.
Seymour was a resident of Bayonne until he was ordained as a priest in 1963, and grew up across from St. Mary's, Star of the Sea - the oldest church in Bayonne. For a time, as a boy, Seymour even delivered newspapers in Bayonne.
This year, along with the other invited clergy from areas near the harbor, Father Mario paused to bless each ship.
"We have no Jewish ships in harbor this year," he said with a laugh at one point in the two-hour sailing. "I guess that's why our Rabbi didn't come."
The U.S. Coast Guard supplied the Bayonne-based Sturgeon Bay, an icebreaking cutter that also serves the police at Newark Bay, New York Harbor, and other local waterways.
Because the boat was constructed in the mid-1980s before women became a prominent part of the Coast Guard, the ship's 17 member crew are all men. The cutter conducts icebreaking operations up and down the Hudson River from December to March, but also conducts security operations, search and rescue and other law enforcement. It also does educational programs - an on this occasion, a blessing of the fleet.
The guest list on this occasion included representatives of FAPS, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, the Union County Prosecutor's Office, the Union County Sheriff's Department, several members of various municipal police departments, and numerous members of the International Longshoremen's Union - including Bayonne Board of Education member Jose Casais, who is a delegate for Local 1235. State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. also made a surprise appearance.
"I've toured Port Newark many times, but never by water," he said, describing his visit as recreational and educational. "I'm here for the blessing of the fleet."