Alabama Folkways Articles

May, 1994


by Anne Kimzey

St. Margaret's Catholic Church in the fishing community of Bayou La Batre celebrates the 45th annual Blessing of the Fleet on Sunday, May 15. The event, which opens the shrimp season, has become part religious ceremony, part local heritage celebration and part tourist attraction. It centers on the colorful parade of boats that cruise up the Bayou to receive blessings by the Archbishop who prays for a good harvest and a safe return.

Although the public ceremony in Bayou La Batre is only 45 years old, the Old World Mediterranean custom of fishing villages offering prayers for abundant catches and protection on the sea, dates back centuries.

Participants begin decorating their boats days in advance of the ceremony. Ropes hung with fluttering plastic flags are strung along the rigging of the shrimp boats in a spectacular display offered, white and blue. One woman said that, in recent years, sign ordinances banning those type of flags from car sales lots have dried up the local supply and that boat owners have a difficult time finding new banners. Hand painted signs also decorate the boats, some with political messages. Signs such as "Save our Fishermen" and others protesting turtle excluder devices express community sentiment against regulations, which they say add to their costs and threaten their livelihood and the way of life of the community.

Despite these expressions of economic hard times, the Fleet Blessing is a decidedly festive occasion. Every boat is decorated and filled with party goers, many who scramble aboard at the last minute as the boats leave the docks. After a brief ceremony on shore with town officials and the Fleet Blessing Queen in attendance, the Catholic clergy board their boat and position themselves on the bow to bless each parading vessel as it passes by. Tourists crowd the shore admiring the display, while judges scrutinize the decorations and award prizes in various categories of competition.

Other events of the day include a Fleet Blessing Mass in the morning at St. Margaret's Church, a land parade down the main street of town and a festival on the church grounds. Local cooks work many hours preparing seafood gumbo and other regional specialties to feed the crowds. Of particular interest are the contests that display skills needed for work in the seafood industry. A long table is surrounded by women who compete picking crabs, shucking oysters, and heading shrimp. Spectators stand nearby, awed by the speed of the contestants.

The seafood industry is the mainstay of the economy in the town. Much of the population depends on jobs in commercial fishing and oystering and the related occupations of seafood processing, net making and boat building. Bayou la Batre is proud of its heritage and its importance as a leading Gulf Coast seafood producing port. The south Mobile County community was founded in 1786 by Joseph Bosarge on a Spanish land grant.