“Fishermen Were Sitting Around Chatting …”

Traditions adopted by Fremantle’s fishing community in the late 1940s were well underway early the Sunday afternoon of 24th October for the 73rd Blessing of the Fleet.

The festival was introduced by migrant fishermen from Molfetta in southern Italy to venerate their Madonna dei Martiri (Our Lady of Martyrs) and her icon was carried in the first procession.

An article by Dianne Davidson in a Fremantle History Society newsletter states: “The beginning of the Fremantle ceremony is attributed to a Molfettese fisherman, Francesco Raimondi. The story goes that 8 September 1943, 1944 or 1946 (different years are given by different sources) was a very rough day, and the boats could not put out to sea. The fishermen were sitting around chatting, when Raimondi reminded them that it was the feast of the Madonna dei Martiri; they all decided to go to Mass.” Davidson continued, “The Madonna which is now the centrepiece of the procession was created by a Subiaco artist, Con Samson, and first took her place in the festival in 1950. She is 152cm tall, and is an exact replica of the statue in the Molfetta Cathedral.”

When Sicilian migrants joined the event they introduced Madonna di Capo D’Orlando, gifted from their hometown.

Other fishing families, including Portugese and Croatian, have since joined the Festival 

Saint Patrick’s Basilica is the cultural centre of the festival and fellowship between the communities, committee members and volunteers as they prepare the Madonnas for the procession to the harbour.

All ages are present, from newborns to senior members of the church and fishing industry who may have attended most of the celebrations.

If you find yourself longing for ‘old Fremantle’ this event embodies the city’s traditional spirit.

In the Basilica’s Children’s Chapel excited kids are transformed into fledgling angels with wings, robes and garlands. Older students wear school uniforms, national dress or suits.

Mikaela Giancaspro, the Queen of the Blessing of the Fleet, is majestic in a white evening gown, tiara, sash … and white cowgirl boots! She’s the perfect Queen, polite, caring, on-task and witty. Mikaela is flanked by young ladies in waiting, two in shining white, two in sky blue satin. 

At two o’clock the procession commences accompanied by the Canning City Brass Band. Spectators crowd pavements and road islands as the parade continues past the old city’s West End architecture onto Marine Parade and the Fishing Boat Harbour. Some observers know the history of the Blessing, others learn from followers as they walk and watch.

On the dockside there’s polite jostling for a view. 

Aboard this year’s lead boat, Neptune III, the Madonna is cautiously moved to the deck. Skipper Fedele Carmada has had a busy week leading to the event – he’s just been elected onto Fremantle’s City Council. Hannah Fitzhardinge, the city’s new Mayor, adorned with the gold chain of office, is onboard for her first offical event. Behind Neptune III, the Madonna di Capo D’Orlando is positioned on Leading Edge. The flotilla navigates the harbour accompanied by dolphins while Geraldton’s Emeritus Bishop Justin Bianchini blesses the fleet, asking for a ‘harvest of salvation’, and protection from the ‘dangers of wind and rain’ and ‘perils of the deep’.

“Lord guide and protect you.”

Bishop Bianchini had written: “We celebrate this Festival in so many ways – with prayer, music, song, colourful procession and other community activities … Very importantly also, it is a time to give thanks. Gratitude to God is the greatest of all prayers.”

Once ashore the procession retraces its steps to Marine Parade where the Madonnas are faced towards The Esplanade. Angels and adults block their ears as firecrackers explode while a strong breeze casts a veil of smoke over the gathering. Finally the procession returns to the Basilica for a closing Mass.

Italian Consul to Western Australia Nicolo Constantini wrote:

“La Benedizione della Flotta is a highly significant event in the history of the Italian presence in Western Australia and reminds us of the strong ties between this welcoming country and our homeland, which the fishermen from Capo D’Orlando and Molfetta have helped to forge. Celebrating fishermen means celebrating the sea, a source of life and a very precious resource that we must carefully protect from polluting activities and the effects of climate change.”

The end of the long day is a relief to the committee and volunteers – a successful event. They’ll do it again next year, young people will rise through the ranks and the Blessing of the Fleet will continue with devotion in an uncertain world.

Story © Danielle Berryman 2021 : Photography © Roger Garwood 2021

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