A priest wearing a robe and stole of white — the color of life and thanksgiving — blessed a string of decorated boats Sunday, just days before the opening of shrimp season.
The Rev. Greg Barras of St. Michael’s Catholic Church continued a decades-long tradition by sprinkling holy water and blessing each vessel participating in the 88th Annual Blessing of The Fleet on the Mississippi Sound.
He stood on the bow of the Pan American Clipper, which was anchored as a procession of 59 boats motored toward it from south of the Biloxi Lighthouse and east to Point Cadet Marina.
“The 88th Blessing of the Fleet is asking God to protect all the boats that will go out and, through God’s graciousness, that the catch be bountiful and good,” Barras said.
“It’s a wonderful celebration of our faith, our history, our legacy and tradition. It is a real privilege that we recognize everything we get out of the the Gulf of Mexico is (a) gift, so we need to say, ‘thank you’ to God,” Barras said.
Shrimp season opens in the state’s territorial waters at 6 a.m. Wednesday.
The annual blessing is part of festivities that include the Biloxi Shrimp Festival, the Fais Do-Do (a street dance of sorts) and the naming of a king and queen.
Richard Johnson, a seventh-generation shrimper, is this year’s shrimp king. The queen is Devahn Delaneuville, 18, of D’Iberville.
The events also aim to celebrate the seafood industry and the mixture of cultures that make it a vital part of Coast life, local history and the economy.
Immigrant workers, including Croatians and Slavonians, who began working in the seafood canning industry in Biloxi in the late 1800s eventually bought boats and began catching shrimp and oysters themselves. Barras said many of them were of the Catholic faith and became an integral part of the church.
Vietnamese immigrants who began to move to the area in the early 1980s have done the same, he said.
But it’s not as easy to be a shrimper these days, considering factors such as the costs of boats and fuel.
“It’s much more difficult to own a boat and to live off the Gulf of Mexico,” Barras said. “These people work hard and sacrifice a lot to live this way of life.”
“So we ask God to bless the family, the catch and the safety, that they will go out and come back week in and week out with their catch. It will not only benefit those families but benefit the whole economy of the Coast.”
Capt. Louis Skrmetta, whose family owns Ship Island Excursions and Sunday’s “blessing boat,” said his family many years ago earned a living shrimping and oystering.
“I enjoy the Blessing of the Fleet because it’s about tradition, local history and a good time with ‘old Biloxi’ people,” he said.
He has captained the “blessing boat” for five years. The Pan American was built in 1937 at the old Mavar’s shrimp factory.
Years ago, 200 to 300 boats would line up for the blessing.
“There’s only 200 (licensed) shrimp boats this year and most of them are getting their boats ready for Wednesday,” Chuck Schwark said.
Of the 59 boats participating, 19 are commercial boats and 40 are pleasure boats, said Wendy Fayard, this year’s chair.
Sunday’s blessing began with the dropping of a wreath in remembrance of deceased fishermen and other workers in the seafood industry.
2017 Shrimp King and Queen and other winners
- Shrimp King: Richard Johnson.
- Shrimp Queen: Devahn Delaneuville
- 1st runner up: Sarah Gatlin
- 2nd runner up: Samantha Woodward
- 3rd runner up: Lexi Trochesset
- Miss Congeniality: Sarah Gatlin
- Miss Seafood Heritage: Samantha Woodward
Best decorated boats
- 1st place: My Sons
- 2nd place: Fair Maiden
- Participation working boat: Barbara K