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A painting, by Katherine Frist, of Stonington fisherman George Roderick, captain of the Luann, who died at sea Jan. 18, 1962, at age 38, hangs in a private home.
Alan Chaplaski, the owner of the 80-foot Neptune, the oldest vessel in the Stonington fishing fleet, works on his nets before heading out to sea from the Stonington Fisherman's Dock to catch royal red shrimp. | Jill Connor / File Photo

Fishermen’s tradition continues with 61st Blessing of the Fleet

STONINGTON — Not unlike the losses experienced by the Stonington fishing fleet, the hallowed Blessing of the Fleet, a tradition rich in history, symbolism and religious significance, saw its two-day festival scaled back four years ago; the recession was blamed then. And while the festival may not be as big as it once was, it nonetheless remains a culturally important event for Stonington fishing families and the greater community.

The 61st annual Stonington Blessing of the Fleet is slated for Sunday, July 27.

“It will never be like it was, just like the industry, but the reason this was begun in 1953 was to honor the fishermen that died at sea. And it’s so important to bless these boats and these (fishermen), the ones that are still fishing, because the peril is still there,” said Michael Crowley, one of the event’s co-chairs.

A committee was formed at St. Mary’s Parish in collaboration with clergy, local fishermen and the Southern New England Fishermen & Lobstermen’s Association to organize the annual festival.

Crowley said a fisherman went overboard this year and was “alone in the sea” for hours before being rescued. Since records have been kept, it’s believed some 38 Stonington fishermen have perished at sea.

“That’s why you do the blessing,” he said.

The Blessing of the Fleet festival begins with a 10:30 a.m. Mass celebrated at St. Mary Church, 95 Main St., Stonington Borough, officiated by the Most Rev. Michael R. Cote, bishop of the Norwich Diocese.

This year’s Blessing of the Fleet grand marshal is Tim Medeiros. Crowley said Medeiros began fishing at age 14 with his father, “Bullhead” Medeiros.

The Mass will be followed at 11:30 a.m. by a procession to the Town Dock and will include clergy, fishermen, the Southern New England Fishermen and Lobstermen’s Association, a statue of the patron saint, St. Peter the Fisherman, members of the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society and Ladies Auxiliary, Our Lady of Fatima Society, Knights of Columbus, and the Stonington Men’s Walking Group. Also marching in the procession will be students from St. Michael School, the Westerly Band, Stonington Borough and Wequetequock firefighters, the Mystic Highland Pipe Band, NESS, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Captain Kidd and the Free Men of the Sea, Rod Benders vintage cars, local and state representatives and many more.

Once at the dock, the ceremony begins with the laying of commemorative wreaths at the Memorial to Fishermen Lost at Sea, located at the end of the Town Dock, and then, according to Crowley, Cote will walk the line of quays conferring the blessing on every fishing vessel and their captains and crews and then will board Neptune (the oldest vessel of the Stonington fleet), where they will put to sea.

Once outside the harbor entrance, the Stonington Fishermen’s Association will lay an anchor-shaped wreath in Stonington waters in remembrance of fisherman lost at sea. Crowley said the fleet will be larger this year than last.

After the Blessing of the Fleet, a free family festival is slated from noon to 4 p.m. at the Town Dock and will include family-friendly miniature golf, live music by the band The Country Misfit, and food concessions selling hot dogs, burgers fritters and other fare.

Also available will be commemorative Blessing of the Fleet T-shirts and hats, which go to support the annual event.

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