Distressed kayaker rescued by Paulists during lake outing

Seminarians, priests at retreat aboard floating Tiki bar are lifesavers on New York’s Lake George

Catholic News Service/Catholic News Agency

This is a typical story about Paulist Fathers, a floating Tiki bar, and a kayaker.

It all started when Greg Barrett, a captain for Tiki Tours, offered the Paulist Fathers—two fathers and five seminarians—a free, relaxing tour around Lake George, which is 60 miles north of Albany, N.Y., in August.

Paulist Father Frank Desiderio is the director of St. Mary’s of the Lake, the summer retreat for the fathers since 1875, and Mr. Barrett lives next door to the retreat’s housekeeper, Vicki Butz.

Mr. Barrett was talking with Ms. Butz one night on his back porch about taking the Paulist Fathers out on the boat, saying, “My mother was a very devout Catholic, and I said these guys need to come out on the Tiki boat.”

“He just wanted to give our guys a nice day, so he offered the free time slot,” Father Desiderio told The Evangelist, the diocesan newspaper of Albany.

The floating Tiki bar is essentially a round barge that normally holds partiers—not priests—on the popular upstate New York lake. The seminarians and novices, who are studying at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., were staying at the retreat for 10 weeks last summer to get out of the city during the pandemic.

It was a typical day on the lake with moderate chop on the water and broken clouds, said Father Desiderio, until the group noticed a man, wearing an ill-fitting life jacket, struggling with his overturned kayak after losing his paddle.

Mr. Barrett also pointed out that after he picked up the Paulist Fathers, instead of going up the west side of the lake and returning on the east side, because of the weather, he went in the opposite direction. It proved to be a fateful decision as they came across the kayaker, Jimmy MacDonald, in distress.

“I noticed his paddle, that is the first thing that caught my attention,” Mr. Barrett said. “I beeped my horn to get the guy’s attention. I thought the person at the time was not paying attention or on his phone and when we got closer, we saw the kayak flipped over and then we heard him yelling for help and we rolled over there to get him out of the water.”

Along with the deckhand, novices Chris Malano from Hawaii and Noah Ismael from Maryland helped Mr. MacDonald to safety.

“They were very happy to be able to help,” said Father Desiderio, who added that another novice on board, Ben Chisholm, was captain of the Fordham swim team.

“The first thing I said was, ‘You are in good hands, you are with priests,’” Mr. Barrett said, “and he said, ‘I am with priests?’ He asked for a prayer as soon as he got on board and I said to him, ‘Are you with somebody?’ He gets on the phone and tells his wife, ‘Guess where I am at? I am on the Tiki boat,’ and he says, ‘It gets better, I am here with a bunch of priests.’”

The Paulists’ retreat has a prominent dock and boathouse, and Father Desiderio said this was not the first time that they have helped people to safety or given them directions. In August, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office used the dock as a staging area in its efforts to search for a drowned swimmer.

“Once a year, we see someone in trouble,” Father Desiderio said.

When Mr. MacDonald found himself floundering in the Lake George waters, he thought he might die.

He had been enjoying a relaxing August day on the lake with his family, meditating and snapping pictures. He kept his lifejacket in the boat—he didn’t think he would need it, he told Glens Falls Living.

But his kayak ended up drifting, and suddenly he found himself far from shore and from his wife and stepchildren. Despite the rough waters, he still thought he could make it back to shore, and so he waved on several boats that had stopped to offer help.

But when his kayak tipped and his hastily donned lifejacket came up to his ears, Mr. MacDonald knew he was in real trouble.

“I thought I was going to die. I was absolutely powerless and wished I had asked for help earlier. I was waving my hand and asked God to please help me,” he said.

God answered his prayers.

“And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Tiki boat,” he exclaimed.

Mr. Ismael told NBC Washington that it was “a movement of the Holy Spirit” that they came across Mr. MacDonald at the right time.

Mr. Malano told New York TV station WNYT that as Paulist seminarians, they are missionaries, and “that day, that was our mission, to be present and help someone in need.”

Mr. Macdonald told WNYT that he took the rescue as a “sign from God” that his life still has a purpose on earth. He also added that he found the rescue funny, in an ironic sense. Mr. MacDonald is an addict in recovery who counsels others through addiction recovery.

“How funny is it that I’ve been sober for seven years and I get saved by a Tiki bar?” he said.

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