STONINGTON — For the past two years, organizers of the annual Blessing of Fleet have kept long-standing traditions alive in a less social sense, hosting more abbreviated events and forgoing large crowds and booklet ad sales to be a good, safe community partner amid a global pandemic.

The community pride and selfless efforts did not go unrecognized, and as the town prepares for the 69th annual Blessing of the Fleet in Stonington Borough on Sunday, organizers Georgia and Mike Crowley said the outpouring of support has been tremendous, leading to what is expected to be one of the largest and most attended programs ever.

“I think part of it has been that people missed this, but the overwhelming support really comes from the fact that this tradition is part of what Stonington Borough is,” said Georgia Crowley, who alongside her husband, Mike, is a St. Mary's parishioner and member of the parish’s Blessing of the Fleet Committee. “This is the last fleet remaining in the state, and there is a lot of community pride when it comes to the borough’s history.”

Following two years of restrained, smaller gatherings without the usual fanfare and fun, the 69th annual blessing promises a more standard return to tradition, and a slightly larger than normal crowd is anticipated.

The weekend-long program will include a road race, an open house at the Stonington Town Docks, a family dinner at the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society on Saturday, and the Fishermen’s Mass at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at St. Mary Church, followed by a procession through the village and community gathering at the Town Docks from noon to 4 p.m.

Mike and Georgia Crowley said Thursday that the annual celebration has become an important tradition to families in the region who have been impacted by the loss of a relative or loved one who was lost at sea.

For those in Georgia Crowley’s family, the annual celebration is somewhat personal. Crowley has seven family members who have been honored at the fisherman’s memorial in Stonington Harbor after they were lost at sea, including her father, local fisherman George Roderick, who died at sea when she was 15.

In 1962 while working off Block Island, Roderick was struck in the head by a block falling from the mast and killed. He was 38 years old.

“While we understand completely, and it is part of why I volunteer to organize this every year, it isn’t just about our family. There are 40 Stonington fishermen who have died at sea, and this program is an opportunity to honor every one of them and to bless our fishermen today so that they may return home safely and with a good catch.”

In recent years, the event has helped pay tribute to others, like father and son Roderick and Rodney Debragga, who were killed in 1974 on a rare trip to Stonington; or Charles Lathrop, a scallop fisherman from Stonington who was killed in April 2020 when he fell overboard.

Lathrop’s family was invited to participate directly, but organizers said they declined as they continue to grieve and move forward following their unexpected loss.

Mike Crowley said the event isn’t just about honoring those who came before, but also recognizing those who take on the task of battling the seas everyday. Stonington fishermen, many of whom fish year-round to make ends meet, battle hot summer days and cold winter storms, laboring through whatever weather Mother Nature brings.

“It isn’t an easy job, especially in the winter when you are battling the ice and snow,” he said. “They deserve to know the community is thinking about them and will look out for their families if something happens."

The annual Blessing of the Fleet has deep roots in the community, having taken place in some form every year since 1954. Celebrations similar to Stonington's have been taking place worldwide for centuries. Similar masses and celebrations have been hosted in fishing communities in Europe, Australia and the British Isles for thousands of years, with oral traditions suggesting the practice dates back to ancient Greece.

This year’s blessing will open with the annual Fishermen’s Mass led by Norwich Diocese Bishop Michael R. Cote and the Rev. Dennis Perkins, followed by a Blessing of the Boats at the Stonington Town Dock at 11:30 a.m. The annual ceremony will also include a laying of wreaths at the fishermen’s memorial, followed by the laying of a broken anchor floral bouquet at sea in memory of all those who have died or were lost at sea over the years.

The blessing will also pay tribute to Michael Grimshaw, a longtime lobsterman and local resident who was selected to serve as grand marshal. Grimshaw, who began his career at just 14, comes from a rich lineage that includes members of the Roderick and DeBragga families and has owned many boats of his own over the years.

Grimshaw could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Georgia Crowley said everything is in place for another great event, and the community is invited to attend most aspects for free or at very minimal cost.

“This event is a way for us to give back to the community and recognize where our community came from,” she said.

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