From a farm in Africa to the Middle East in a warship – the adventures of HMCS Calgary’s chaplain

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Navy News / April 14, 2021

By Captain Jeff Klassen

From growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe to serving in a Canadian warship, a chaplain aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Calgary feels he has made all the right choices along the way. 

Lieutenant (Navy) (Lt(N)) Wilson Gonese grew up on a farm in Gutu, Zimbabwe. He received a calling from God and after high school, he told his parents he wanted to be a minister.

“At first it was not accepted because ministers were not paid well. My family wanted me to go into nursing or teaching – anything more secure – but I was convinced God was calling,” said Lt(N) Gonese.

For 13 years, Lt(N) Gonese served as a minister in the Reform Church in several communities in Zimbabwe and Botswana. In 2007, with hopes of a better life, he and his wife and their two children took a one-way flight to Canada where he continued to work as a United Church minister in Newfoundland in the communities of Burgeo, Springdale and Carbonear.

“Moving to Canada from Africa was a huge transition. The cold weather, cultural shock, not knowing whether we will succeed or not,” he said. “Still, the people of Newfoundland are very friendly and welcoming, so I had a very good time there.” 

In 2018, Lt(N) Gonese had another calling – to join the Canadian Armed Forces as a chaplain.

“I wanted to serve the country alongside serving members. I looked at the men and women in uniform and I wanted to give them the support they need, to be there for them,” he said.

In 2020, Lt(N) Gonese began the biggest adventure of his military career thus far – serving in HMCS Calgary, providing moral and spiritual support to those on board. He is currently embarked with the ship on its deployment to the Indo-Asia Pacific and Middle East regions on Operations ARTEMIS and PROJECTION.

On March 9, while the ship was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Lt(N) Gonese successfully defended his doctoral thesis via a Zoom teleconferencing call. It is believed to be the first time a doctoral thesis has been defended on a Canadian warship while deployed on an operation.

Lt(N) Gonese’s thesis is entitled Moving from loss and lament to hope and new beginnings, and is a case study about his previous community of Carbonear and how they dealt with the closing of their church in 1990.

Lt(N) Gonese will be granted a Doctorate of Ministry from Saskatoon Theological Union, a part of the University of Saskatchewan, at a convocation ceremony on May 7. Crew members call him “Doctor Padre.”

Lt(N) Gonese feels his journey has been a positive one. He and his wife currently live in Victoria, while his daughter also serves in the Royal Canadian Navy in HMCS Charlottetown as a supply technician, and his son is studying to become a neuroscientist in Newfoundland.

“It’s exciting. Coming to Canada and joining the military were some of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” he said.