Rounding Bayou Lafourche, it occurred to us that this all would’ve looked more beautiful on a different day. It seems ungrateful and petty but blue skies rather than the uniform ceiling of grey would’ve set the colors of the flags in brighter contrast as they snapped against the booms of the trawl boats. Still, a dozen or so trawl boats decked out in flags and docked along the bayou wall in front of a Catholic Church is a dramatic sight to behold, especially when you aren’t expecting it. We were down the bayou for a different reason, having forgotten that this was happening, but when we came around the bend in Golden Meadow and saw the flags and the boats and all the people, we remembered that it was time for the Blessing of the Fleet.
The Blessing of the Fleet is not a new tradition: it’s been present in some form or another among the French-Catholic fishing communities of South Louisiana for nearly 300 years. As the economics of trawling fluctuate, so does the trawler fleet, and thus the attendance of the Blessing. In recent years, at least along Bayou Lafourche, the Blessing has been sparsely attended. Many people we spoke to had talked about how the tradition seemed to be fading. But this year’s different: it’s the 100th anniversary of the Golden Meadow Catholic Church – Our Lady of Prompt Succor – so virtually every active trawl boat in town came to celebrate the Blessing.
It goes like this: the trawl boats are decorated from hull to mast with as many flags as possible, from the little strings of triangles to the big whipping national emblems. The boats dock along the bayou-side in front of the church, one against another, three or four deep so that to get from the last boat to the shore one has to climb through three others. On board each boat families are grilling and drinking beer, sitting in folding chairs on the deck visiting, celebrating the impending start of the trawling season. All morning people show up and stroll along the shore, talking with trawlers and their families, who make it a point to invite people on board for a drink or a plate of roasted pig. When the priest comes out of the Church flanked by the Knights of Columbus in their suits, sashes and pointed hats, everyone lines up on their boats. The priest gives the blessing, asking for a bountiful and safe shrimping season. The Knights salute with their sabres and the whole blessing party boards the trawl boats.
At this point, we were walking along the shore and happened to catch the eye of Captain Jared Guidry of the Lady Dolcina – a family friend in the way that most people down the bayou are family friends. He invited us on board, and we found a spot on deck next to his daughter’s crib, nestled against the knots of rigging and boom lines. In a flurry of activity, the stacks of boats dissolved into a line and the boat parade began. From the Bayou we watched the town of Golden Meadow pass by. The buildings along LA 1 are familiar, we’ve driven that road a thousand times, but from the bayou the town looks different, especially this time, on every dock sit people waving, watching the trawling fleet pass by, flags flying, a riot of color and culture. The pride people take in their heritage, the importance they place in this tradition is obvious in the overjoyed faces of children watching, and the misty eyes of the elderly, waving from their porches.
In small communities like Golden Meadow, the local Catholic church hitting its centennial isn’t only a milestone for parishioners, it’s a milestone for the whole community. Though many people living along Bayou Lafourche consider themselves Catholic, many are not religiously so. In a place like Golden Meadow, Catholicism is as much a cultural aspect as a spiritual one, so people who wouldn’t normally attend mass make it a point to celebrate the church’s anniversary and are proud to participate in a tradition like the Blessing of the Fleet. These observations are no longer purely religious ceremonies. They’re community events, but they harken back to the region’s earliest francophone heritage, a heritage that’s still familiar and relevant to many living along the bayou.
The coastal communities of Louisiana have faced many hardships in the last 300 years from bad policies to hurricanes to oil spills to cheap foreign shrimp, and while the list of hardships seems to be piling up faster and faster these days, communities have remained vibrant. Though newer industries like the oil field seem to have taken over the economy in the many towns scattered along the various bayous, events like the Blessing of the Fleet tie every roughneck back to his trawl boat heritage. These events remind people of their roots and their culture in a time when the larger national culture encourages everyone to leave such pasts behind. But in coastal Louisiana, the past is much more than history: it’s the reason for the present.
We’re proud to have participated in the Blessing of the Fleet, and we’re proud to be associated with the people of Golden Meadow who’ve been scratching out a living from the sea for 300 years. The trawlers and their families have endured much worse than grey skies and dreamt of much more than a bright blue to contrast the colors of their flags. It’s our hope that they continue to endure. It’s our hope that the blessing bestowed by the priests of Our Lady of Prompt Succor ensures safety and prosperity for the crews of these trawl boats. Our region, culture, and dinner plates depend on them.