Decorating for the Shrimp Fleet Blessing: Chauvin, Louisiana
By Betsy Gordon
The Blessing of the Fleet is an annual event that is practiced in fishing communities world-wide. As a genre, these blessings share several common traits: one or more priests perform the actual blessing; fishermen gather in their newly outfitted boats to receive the blessing; and family members unite in making whatever preparations are dictated by local tradition. Although all of the preceding traits are common, this paper will focus solely on one traditional element: boat blessing decorations in Chauvin, Louisiana.
In the town of Chauvin the event is called the "boat blessing." This Cajun community has continued the ritual since its adoption in the late 1920s or early 1930s (1). Although present-day participants still hold many of the religious beliefs of the originators, various changes have resulted in a parade of boats' taking visual precedence over the blessing.
When the first blessings were held in Chauvin, the tiny boats were not much larger than row boats. The shrimpers came up the bayou to St. Joseph's Catholic Church for the blessing, where they tied up five deep across Little Caillou (the bayou waterway that opens into the Gulf of Mexico seventeen miles south of Chauvin). At its inception the priest conducted an outdoor mass on the bayou side, then blessed the boats as they passed in review. Later, the mass moved indoors, and an elaborate processional took place from the church across the road to the docked boats. Pictures from the late thirties show a number of brightly robed priests, altar boys, and other dignitaries leading the human procession to a makeshift altar. Each boat passed by and the occupants knelt to receive the blessing; then they returned home (Duplantis-Pelegrin 1987). Today the blessing is only the beginning of the event, which is organized by a church-sanctioned, volunteer group, the Boat Blessing Committee.
For the residents who live along Little Caillou, the hallmark of the blessing is the boat parade. It starts with the priests boarding the lead boat at St. Joseph's Catholic Church just north of Chauvin proper. The lead boat begins the procession down the bayou. One by one, the other boats are blessed as the lead boat passes, and those who want to participate fall in behind the last boat in the procession. By the time they reach Boudreaux Canal where they turn to go into Lake Boudreaux, there may be as many as 200 boats in the parade (E. Prospere 1987). That turn is where most observers gather to watch the parade. For the boatowners the party that follows the blessing and parade is the high point of the day. They anchor in the lake and "let the good times roll." That is when the family and friends who have joined them eat, drink, and dance the afternoon away on the trawlers.
The stately line of trawlers is a strikingly beautiful sight. The decorations are so resplendent that the priests on the bow are almost indistinguishable. Those decorations are the end result of months of planning and preparation by the families who operate the boats. The women in the family are responsible for decorating the boat. To accomplish that, they rely on creativity, artistic ability, ingenuity, and their extended family. For these family "artists" the thrust of the blessing is the boat decoration competition. The rules are few and simple: 1) To compete, boat owners must be from St. Joseph's Catholic Church parish (This is roughly ward seven of Terrebonne Parish. Neither the parishioners nor the priest of the predominately Catholic community distinguish between the church parish and the voting district. To them, they are the same [Brunet 1986]). 2.) First, second and third place prizes are given to double-rigged boats for the best decorations in both religious and nonreligious themes. 3.) First and second place prizes are given to single-rigged boats for the best decorations in both religious and nonreligious themes ("Boat Blessing" 1987:3). There are no other set guidelines. Each family comes up with its own theme annually. Themes range from Biblical characters and events to Mardi Gras, patriotic motifs, cartoon characters, or anything else that comes to mind. Current events are also represented. Three consecutive hurricanes in the fall of 1985 provoked spring of 1986's "Victims of Hurricane Juan." The legislative battle about TED's (turtle protection devices) was responsible for political themes used in the spring of 1987.
Once a theme is chosen, often within a few months of the last blessing, the family is let in on the secret. The secrecy functions in two ways. Family ties are strengthened by the joint knowledge concealed from others because the prizes are competitive. The rewards include valuable marine supplies and equipment. Winners may receive several hundred gallons of diesel fuel, ice for refrigerating a load of shrimp, etc. (J. Prospere 1987). In addition, the secrecy stimulates rivalry among community members which in turn prompts their best creative endeavors.
Next, they inventory supplies on hand and begin to gather designs to help them make decorations for their theme. Likely sources of designs include children's coloring books, Sunday school books, embroidery and needlework books. Simple patterns with bold lines are easiest to adapt. Simultaneously they begin to collect materials to make the decorations. One appreciated talent is the ability to adapt and reuse patterns from one year to the next with variation that give them new life. An unwritten rule dictates that the decoration will be hand-made, not bought. Strings of flags to run from bow to the topmost rigging and then to stern are the only exception. For a double rig trawler, flags alone may cost more than 750 dollars (E. Prospere 1987). Since they are plastic, they can be used year after year, so their purchase can be considered a permanent investment. The rest of the articles are made from inexpensive materials and reused for several years with minor refurbishing and adapting. Typical materials are poster paper, lightweight cardboard, tempera paints, fluorescent art paints, and colored tissue paper. The lightness of these supplies is essential to those decorating boats with steel hulls, because they have to apply everything to the sides of the boat with double-stick tape. Those with wooden hull boats can use slightly heavier materials, such as light-weight paneling that can be stapled or tacked to the sides. With both kinds of hulls, it is important to remember that anything that is not waterproof can end up staining the boat's paint job. For that reason tissue paper ornaments are kept high on the sides or above the deck: things placed lower are painted on paper and, when this is affordable, laminated to prevent water damage from waves as the boat moves or smaller boats pass.
There are a group of principles that guide the coordinator of the decoration design and construction. Someone must measure the boat from end to end to insure that the design is balanced and will frame the boat's name. They also measure the graduated distances from the waterline to the deck level. Those who are best at putting the measurements together with the artistic idea map out a plan for figures and decals that correspond with the shapes and sizes of the area to be decorated. Finally, they produce mirror images of every decoration for the sides of the boat. This insures that the same thing is seen from either side, a plus in the judging. The final touches are large items to be mounted atop the cabin, the bow, the stem, or suspended from the rigging. These may be simple cardboard figures (a silhouette of George Washington) or elaborate mechanized items (a rotating globe).
In order to be ready for the blessing in late April, the designs are sketched out in January or February, and family members begin working together at night or on rainy days to complete the decoration on time.
Because most of the materials are some form of paper, they cannot be applied until the morning of the blessing. On Saturday, the men take four or five hours. Early Sunday morning, the painstakingly prepared paper and cardboard decorations are transported to the boat. The entire family group gathers between seven and nine a.m. to begin the process of transforming the working boats into fantasy creations for the day. No one is excused from helping. Even women who cannot swim venture into rowboats to affix decoration to the sides of the trawler. Men handle the larger pieces; children run errands (Domanque-Le Bouef 1987). Preparing and decorating the boat is a uniquely familial task for the participants.
In Chauvin, Louisiana, shrimping families' communal sharing is evidenced by the decorations which they lovingly create at great expenditure of time and money to celebrate the blessing of the fleet. Everything about the preparation reflects family bonds strengthened during the countless hours shared in preparation. The traditions involved in preparing to celebrate this ancient custom unite young and old, male and female, sacred and secular, while distinguishing relatives from friends, community members from outsiders. Working together as they do is a joyous celebration of family ties.
"Boat Blessing." 1987. Parish Family Newsletter. April 12:3.
Brunet, Rev. Monseigneur Frederic. Personal Interview. March 13, 1986. [Pastor, St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church]
Domanque, Nora and Norma Le Bouef. Personal Interview. March 25, 1987.
Duplantis, Mickey, Thelma Duplantis, and Imelde Pelegrin. Personal Interview. February 24, 1987.
Prospere, Eudras. Personal Interview. February 25, 1987. [Chairman, Boat Blessing Committee, St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church]
Prospere, Joan. Personal Interview. February 24, 1987.
1. Local newspaper records no longer exist for the years in question. My most reliable informant, J. D. Theriot, does not remember the exact year.