Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet

Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet

First weekend in May
In the coastal town of Bayou La Batre, the "Seafood Capital of Alabama," the shrimp blessing has been celebrated since 1950. It is usually held on the first Sunday in May. The "main street" of the town, founded in 1786, is actually the bayou, where trawlers are often tied up three or four deep. Shrimp is the mainstay of commercial fishing here, and more than 350 shrimp boats work out of the town, while several hundred other vessels operate in the waters off the port harvesting oysters, crab, and finfish. Seafood products landed in the port have a dockside value of $33 million annually, but the total seafood industry, including processors, is thought to produce $300 million for the local economy. Boat building and repair are also major industries.
The fleet blessing began simply: a priest went up and down the bayou blessing the boats tied to the docks. From the start, a wreath has been lowered into the bayou to honor fishermen lost at sea. Now some 25,000 people come for the highlight and final event of the weekend: the blessing ceremony by the priest of St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church and a parade of between 50 and 100 boats decorated with pennants, bunting, and papier mâchÉ figures. Other events include contests in oyster shucking, shrimp heading, and crab picking; seafood and gumbo dinners; a land parade; a fiddler-crab race for children; and the crowning of the Fleet Queen. The affair is sponsored by St. Margaret Church.
In the port city of Biloxi, Mississippi, Blessing of the Fleet is a celebration of the start of the fishing season, where seafood is the major industry. It is also held over the first weekend in May. The blessing began in 1924 when sailing craft made up most of the fleet.
Today up to 80 boats parade past the Blessing Boat, where the pastor of St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church (known as the Church of the Fisherman) stands and bestows the blessings. The boats are decorated with flags and elaborate three-dimensional plywood constructions of such figures as mermaids, shrimp, paddlewheels, and fishnets. There are also schooner races, net-throwing and oyster-shucking contests, the crowning of a king and queen, and street dances known as fais-do-do . Supposedly "fais-do-do" was the song sung to children to tell them to go to sleep, and the dance got its name because adults danced when the children slept. The weekend also offers lots of local food—mullet, boiled shrimp, and Biloxi bacon.
CONTACTS:
St. Margaret Catholic Church
13790 S. Wintzell
P.O. Box 365
Bayou La Batre, AL 36509
334-824-2415; fax: 334-824-2415
www.fleetblessing.org
St. Michael Catholic Church
177 First St.
P.O. Box 523
Biloxi, MS 39530
228-435-5578
www.stmichaelchurchbiloxi.com
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. S.E.
Washington, DC 20540
202-707-5000; fax: 202-707-2076
www.loc.gov
SOURCES:
GdUSFest-1984, p. 100