The seafood industry has long been part of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Seafood harvesting and processing were thriving businesses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so much so that Biloxi was known as the Seafood Capital of the World. Croatian and Slavonian immigrants and Cajuns from Southwest Louisiana built the early industry. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnamese refugees entered the business, first in the packing plants and later owning and operating their own boats.
Though the seafood industry has waned over the years, it remains economically and culturally significant. The most visible and public celebration of this industry and its traditions is the annual Blessing of the Fleet, an event that continues a European Catholic tradition and reflects the faith of most of those who immigrated to Mississippi to work in the business.
Both Biloxi and Pass Christian hold annual blessings in late spring or early summer, prior to the opening of Mississippi’s shrimp season. Biloxi held its first blessing in 1929, with Pass Christian following eight years later and repeating the blessing intermittently in subsequent years. In both cities, fishermen and their families and the greater public participate in the events.
Biloxi holds its blessing on the first weekend in May. The celebration begins on Saturday morning with a race between the Mikey Sekul and the Glenn L. Swetman, reproductions of the old Biloxi schooners. In the afternoon, St. Michael Catholic Church, the main sponsor of the fleet blessing, holds a special mass. This church has historically been known as the fishermen’s church, and it features a clam-shaped roof and stained glass images of fishermen. The evening’s activities include the Seafood Festival, which features food and music and culminates in the crowning of the Shrimp King and Queen. The king is usually an older man honored for his experience on the water, while the queen is chosen after a pageant and essay contest in which the competitors are high-school-aged girls with family ties to the industry. The winner receives a cash scholarship for college from a local bank.
Shrimp boats and pleasure craft take to the water on Sunday morning. The event begins with the ceremonial dropping of a wreath into the water in memory of those fishermen who have died, a sobering reminder that the sea can be dangerous. The bishop of the Diocese of Biloxi stands aboard the “blessing boat” and sprinkles the boats with holy water as they pass by. In Pass Christian either a Catholic or Episcopal priest or both stand on the breakwater overlooking the harbor entrance and bless the boats as they pass below. Both working shrimp boats and pleasure craft may receive a blessing, but only the shrimp boats are eligible for judging in the decoration contest. Decorations—particularly colorful plastic bunting—cover the boats from bow to stern. Some also fly the American flag, the Mississippi state flag, or the Confederate battle flag. Religious items such as crucifixes, portraits of Jesus, and rosary beads made of flotation devices adorn some boats. Vessels are divided into three classes according to size and are scored on originality, appearance, and adherence to the annual theme. Prizes include such items as diesel fuel, a haul-out, an engine tune-up, and coolers.
Despite the changes in the seafood industry brought on by such factors as the introduction of dockside gambling, increased competition from international markets, and the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi’s Gulf Coast still embraces this part of its heritage. Though fewer residents rely on the industry for their livelihood, the Blessing of the Fleet remains an important tradition and a public celebration of a proud community.
- Val Husley, Maritime Biloxi (2000)
- Trent Lott, Biloxi, Mississippi’s Blessing of the Fleet, Library of Congress American Folklife Center, Local Legacies Project website, http://www.loc.gov/folklife/roots