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If you were to step out on a dock in Alabama, Georgia, or Louisiana on a crisp spring morning at the start of shrimp fishing season, you might bump into one of the oldest Catholic maritime rituals in the world: the Blessing of the Fleet. The ritual, which sees a priest blessing a vessel to ensure a safe and bountiful season out at sea, has its roots in Catholic parts of Southern Europe such as France, Spain, and Portugal, and was brought to the United States and Canada by Catholic immigrants.
The tradition expanded during the earlier 20th century, when innovations in shrimp fishing such as the introduction of motor boats made fishing one of the leading industries for the local economy. It is believed that within the U.S. the oldest consecutive Blessing of the Fleet tradition was started in 1916 at the church of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Golden Meadow, Louisiana.
Today, dozens of communities still take part in the practice, making it one of the most long-standing Catholic traditions in the country. Celebrations may take the form of small parades or larger events attracting thousands of people from out of town, but usually revolve around the same structure. A fishermen’s Mass is held in the morning at the local church, followed by a boat parade at the nearby wharf, where adorned vessels are sprinkled with holy water and receive their blessing for a safe and bountiful season.
Once near the water, the ceremony sees shrimp trawlers, the typical local fishing boats, circling the waterfront as they wait to be blessed by a local priest. The clergyman stands on a small boat from which he can sprinkle holy water and bless each vessel as it passes. Each boat is elaborately decorated with flowers, streamers and signs, and at the end of the event a committee picks the best decorated boat, which is awarded with fuel, maritime equipment and vouchers.
In Brunswick, Georgia, the tradition has its roots in the local Portuguese community. The event is usually held on Mother’s Day to honor the Lady of Fatima, patron saint of Portugal. As explained by Aimee Schmidt in New Georgia Encyclopedia, the the ceremony starts with morning Mass and the crowning of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which is decorated with ferns and fresh flowers and an anchor made of flowers, followed by a parade where the statue is taken around the town streets.
In Darien, Georgia, just a few miles north of Brunswick, the ritual takes place each spring on a Sunday afternoon, but the exact date varies depending on low tide timing as a rising tide may drive the vessels into the bridge. Much as in Brunswick, fishermen spend weeks ornamenting their vessels to compete for best decorated boat. Celebratory events are held every day in the week leading up to the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony, including evening prayer service for fishermen, collective fish fries and fishermen-themed street parades.
On Sunday, after mass, local priests of different parishes stand on the dock and bless each vessel as it approaches.
In Bayou La Batre, Alabama, the Blessing of The Fleet ceremony is held on the dock of St. Margaret Parish. It starts with a prayer by the Archbishop of the Diocese of Mobile followed by the crowning of the Fleet Blessing Queen. Then, the names of local fishermen who died at sea are read aloud and a bell is tolled for each of them. After this moving moment, the Archbishop and other clergymen board a small boat and sail around the harbor to individually bless each boat of the port.
In the first edition of the ceremony, a menu of bread, tomato, lettuce and boiled shrimp was served thanks to donations from parishioners. Today, the food is sourced from local companies but believers still take part in the preparation and serving of the meal. The Blessing of the Fleet has grown to include different cuisines reflecting the diversity of Bayou La Batre, with Vietnamese seafood dishes and gumbo now included as part of the menu.
In Grand Isle, Louisiana, on a Sunday in late April the community celebrates the Blessing of the Fleet with an entire day of celebrations starting in the morning with live music, food booths and boats lining up at Sand Dollar Marina to receive their annual blessing. In the afternoon, celebrations continue with more music and a rope throwing contest. The event attracts visitors from all over the state.
Last year, the communities of Terrebonne and Lafourche, in southern Louisiana, welcomed the Blessing of the Fleet tradition with particular joy as this was the first Blessing of the Fleet ceremony after the destruction caused by Hurricane Ida. In late April, dozens of shrimp boats decorated with festoons and colorful banners headed down the bayou towards Lake Boudreaux to be blessed by a priest from St. Joseph Catholic Church.
“Boat blessings have a long history here in south Louisiana, and still today, when the fishing industry continues to be important to so many, at these events we ask God to both keep people safe and to provide all that they need as they work,” Rev. Patrick Riviere, director of the diocese’s Office of the Priesthood, told Houma Today, “It’s a beautiful opportunity to pray for each other and to renew our trust in God’s ability to provide for all our needs.”
According to an article on this subject by Dustin Reuther in 64 Parishes, Blessing of the Fleet ceremonies in Louisiana currently take place in Delcambre, Morgan City, Bayou Dularge, Grand Caillou/Dulac, Chauvin, Pointe-aux-Chenes, Des Allemands, Golden Meadow, Grand Isle, Jean Lafitte, Chalmette, Delacroix Island, and Empire.
“It’s more than tradition,” Rev. Riviere told Houma Today, “It’s a spiritual underlying foundation of our people that they recognize the importance of being blessed by God, particularly with their work on the water. It also commemorates and recognizes the lives of those who died out there on the waters. This is an annual event that our people take very seriously.”