Blessing of the Fleet a mix of solemn ritual, colorful party
Stonington - A throng filled the streets of the borough Sunday morning to remember fishermen lost at sea and watch Bishop of Norwich Rev. Michael R. Cote bless the vessels that comprise the state's last surviving commercial fishing fleet.
The 60th annual Blessing of the Fleet, which is based on similar traditions in Europe and Australia, began with a 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Mary Church.
"Wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are in the hands of our loving heavenly father," said Cote during the service, encouraging churchgoers to have faith that God is watching over the area's fishermen. He explained that sometimes God allows people to die because it is part of a greater plan and read the names of local fishermen who lost their lives at sea.
The somber tone of the Mass contrasted starkly with the atmosphere on the lawn just across from the church. There, lively groups of brightly-dressed people waited for the clergy to exit the church so they could join the procession to the Town Dock.
Sunday was the first time the town held a parade for the Blessing of the Fleet for several years, said Police Commissioner Scott Bates, whose son marched in the procession.
"This is why we live here-to have this kind of community and togetherness," said Bates, adding that he felt the street he lives had come alive.
Bates' son, Jacob, adjusted his snorkel and goggles while he waited impatiently for the bishop to finish the morning's service. Jacob, who proudly declared himself six-and-a-half years old, was participating in the parade as part of the New England Science and Sailing Foundation contingent. NESS on Water Street teaches kids about sailing, marine science and water sports.
Near Jacob and his fellow NESS snorkelers, a group of men in orange shirts held a banner that read "O.M.W.G." in bold letters.
O.M.W.G. is the Old Men's Walking Group, which meets every morning to take a walk together in Stonington. They decided to give back to the community while they were at it, so now they pick up papers and other litter, said member Jack Gorby.
"We don't usually walk on the Sabbath, but we're making an exception for today," added Gorby.
The clergy stepped out of St. Mary Church around 12:40 p.m., accompanied by altar boys and the ceremony's grand marshals, Melissa McLaughlin and Alisha Smith.
McLaughlin and Smith are the granddaughters of Jim Henry, a Stonington fisherman who died in January just three months shy of his 100th birthday. Henry gained international attention by teaching himself to read and write at 91 years old and then publishing his first book at 98.
The procession to the dock ended with two children carrying a banner to herald in the next attraction: a statue of Peter, the patron saint of fishermen.
Peter was depicted standing next to a lobster trap and with a fishing net trailing from his hand. The statue was being hauled down the street by a red Chevy Silverado and was the most popular part of the parade. Onlookers walked alongside the pickup truck, taking pictures, and surrounded it when it came to a stop on the dock.
When the group reached the ocean, Cote said a prayer to "God of sea and sky," who he called the "master of wind and cloud." He asked God to bless the ships as he had blessed Peter by calming the seas for him and showing him where to cast his nets.
As the bishop left the borough, the mass of people moved down the docks toward tents, where there would be food, music and dancing well into the afternoon.
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