The custom of the Blessing of the Fleet can be traced back to Old World European fishing communities where God was publicly acknowledged and asked for a bountiful harvest and the safety of the men at sea. In 1949, St. Margaretís held its first Blessing of the Fleet envisioned by a parishioner, Clarence Mallet, who moved to Bayou La Batre from Louisiana in 1925 with a strong belief that Godís blessings were essential to a good harvest from the sea. With this conviction, he convinced Father Alex OíNeill to hold the first Blessing of the Fleet.
At that first Fleet Blessing, a menu of boiled shrimp, lettuce, tomato, and bread was served for 50¢. Boats were tied up all along the docks at the Bayou Ice Company and Father OíNeill, using water from the bayou that had been blessed for the occasion, walked along the docks and blessed each boat. There was no boat parade or land parade that year.
Today, a Fleet Blessing ceremony, held right here on the dock at St. Margaretís, begins with a prayer by the Archbishop of the Diocese of Mobile. The Fleet Blessing Queen is crowned, then the names are read, and the bell is tolled for each person known in our community to have perished at sea. The Archbishop and other clergy then board a boat, and from the bow toss the ceremonial wreath into the bayou waters. After this, decorated boats of all kinds form a procession behind the boat carrying the Archbishop, and parade to the mouth of the bayou and back, as the Archbishop blesses their boats and docked vessels along the way.
In the early years of the Fleet Blessing, every bit of seafood was donated and parishioners worked side by side in their homes or in their shops heading and pealing the shrimp, picking crabmeat, cleaning the fish, and shucking oysters. Now most of the seafood is purchased from local companies, and government regulations determine how and where the food can be prepared, but parishioners and volunteers still work side by side to make this a fun filled family weekend for all.
St. Margaretís Blessing of the Fleet has grown to include Vietnamese Cuisine, a Gumbo Cook-off, an Arts & Crafts Show, a Decorated Boat Contest, Boat Cruises, Bingo, and more. It is a tourist attraction and a community event that people of Bayou La Batre look forward to each year. The success of the event lies with the parishioners who plan the event, the volunteers who work the event, and with the many loyal sponsors who St. Margaretís depends upon for their contributions. Even though the Fleet Blessing event has changed, the purpose and mission has not; the men of the sea still come each year to have their boats blessed and prayers said for their bountiful harvest and protection against the perils of the sea.