All About the Blessing
The seafood industry helped to establish Biloxi. While the area
was first settled by the French in the early 18th century, Biloxi
was primarily a quiet resort community until the late 1800s when
several local businessmen opened seafood canning plants. The
industry developed during this time due to the establishment of a
railroad link to the inland markets and the introduction of ice
manufacturing and modern canning processes. The growth of the
seafood canning industry brought thousands of immigrant workers to
the area, including Croatians and Slavonians from Yugoslavia and
Cajuns from southwestern Louisiana. While initially working in the
canning plants, many of these immigrants eventually bought their own
boats and began harvesting shrimp and oysters from the Mississippi
This work experience has been repeated by the Vietnamese immigrants who have come to Biloxi in recent years. Many moved into the area during the early 1980s to take jobs at the seafood processing plants. Now many of them own their own shrimp boats and they make up the majority of active shrimp fishermen.
The Blessing of the Fleet ceremony came out of these groups' strong ties to their Catholic faith. The tradition marks the beginning of the fishing season for shrimp fishermen. The blessing given by the Pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church and the Bishop of the Biloxi Diocese invokes a safe and prosperous fishing season for each boat in the procession.
The tradition can be traced back to ancient times in Europe, but Biloxi's first Blessing ceremony took place in 1929. George Higginbotham, a longtime Biloxi resident described the first ceremony to a local newspaper reporter in 1998. Sunday Mass was conducted by the parish priest from an altar constructed on the shore of Biloxi's Bay. The fishermen tied their decorated boats together in the bay and the priest stepped from deck to deck, blessing the boats.
The current ceremony is larger and more mobile. The shrimp boats form a procession out in the Mississippi Sound and file past the anchored "Blessing Boat" where the officiating priest and bishop stand, sprinkling holy water on the boats and giving the blessing for each one.
Over the years the Blessing of the Fleet has grown to include additional events, including the Fais Do-Do or Shrimp Festival. The festival takes place the day before the Blessing and features various shrimp dishes, dancing, and the coronation of a Shrimp King and Queen who reign over the Festival and Blessing. Begun in 1948, the Shrimp Queen is determined by a pageant contest. Young women in high school who have familial ties to the seafood industry are eligible to compete. The winner receives prize money to be used for college expenses.
Reigning alongside her is the Shrimp King, who is chosen beforehand. The King is an older man who has many years experience in the seafood industry. The King and Queen are crowned at the Shrimp Festival and join the priest and bishop conducting the Blessing of the Fleet in the stationary "Blessing Boat."
St. Michael Catholic Church has been the central sponsor of the Blessing ceremony through the years. It is the place of worship for many Biloxi fishermen and its architecture reflects the main occupation of the parishioners. The church building is round with a scalloped shaped roof that resembles a huge clam shell. Featured on the stained glass windows in the church are Christ's twelve Apostles, who are shown as fishermen. St. Michael Catholic Church pastor, Fr. Greg Barras, plays a central role in the organization of the Blessing and Shrimp Festival each year.
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