Out To Sea - Franciscan Father Thomas Conway, parochial vicar of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, was joined by leaders of the Episcopal and Lutheran communities in Barnegat for the annual ecumenical blessing of the fleet. Jeff Bruno photo
Out To Sea - Franciscan Father Thomas Conway, parochial vicar of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, was joined by leaders of the Episcopal and Lutheran communities in Barnegat for the annual ecumenical blessing of the fleet. Jeff Bruno photo

For more than three decades, the Borough of Barnegat Light has paid tribute in words and music to the people who have helped to build the local fishing industry into the thriving community it is today.

On June 13, more than 300 men, women and children gathered on the docks of the Barnegat Boat Basin for an event considered by many to be a sacred rite of passage – the ‘Blessing of the Fleet.’  (CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS)

The event unites people of all faiths for a common purpose – to pray collectively for those who work at sea, those whose lives have been lost at sea, and those who work continually on behalf of the commercial fishing industry. Approximately 25-30 commercial fishing vessels call the Barnegat Boat Basin their home port.

“Everybody’s spirituality really comes through, and people are genuinely grateful for the boat blessings,” noted Franciscan Father Thomas Conway, parochial vicar of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Long Beach Township, who represented the Catholic community at the event.

Father Conway has participated for five years and enjoys interacting and praying with clergy from other denominations.

“It is wonderful to see so many people publicly joined in prayer,” he added. Father Donald Turner from St. Peter at the Light Episcopal Church also participated.

Held every June, the Blessing of the Fleet draws guests from the entire tri-state area. As tradition dictates, it begins with a dockside ecumenical service. Gospel readings feature seafaring themes. Clergy arrive in a United States Coast Guard rescue craft, which docks and faces the crowd. Commercial vessels and pleasure boats fill the surrounding waters.

The Blessing of the Fleet reflects the spirit of a celebration hosted annually May 22 in Washington commemorating the National Day of Prayer & Remembrance for Mariners and People of the Sea. Hosted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Apostleship of the Sea National Office and the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, a Mass is celebrated in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It commemorates merchant marines, seafarers, fish and water workers, port personnel, and others in the maritime community, building on the understanding that, for Catholics, water is a rich source of life and essential part of Baptism.

Rev. John Elstad of Zion Lutheran Church, Barnegat Light, led the service. He recognized all active duty military personnel, including the United States Coast Guard, police, fire, and other rescue personnel who risk their lives for others. The Valley Forge Boys Choir sang renditions of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “I Vow to Thee My Country.”

Rev. Elstad prayed for the safety of all maritime personnel with simple but moving words. “Receive into your protection all those who go down to the sea in ships and do business on the waters. Make their voyages safe and be yourself their way and light ‘til journeying shall end.”

Barnegat Light Borough Mayor Kirk O. Larson, who has served in that capacity for 16 years, welcomed the crowd. A 20-year participant in the event, he paid tribute to more than 60 boat captains and maritime personnel who had passed. Representing the third generation of a successful commercial fishing business.

Mayor Larson noted that the service was being held with special intentions for his father, the late Captain John Larson, who died of complications from heart surgery Dec. 23, 2009. He was captain of the Miss Barnegat Light, a popular party boat, and also owned eight commercial fishing vessels. Captain Larson actually purchased the Miss Barnegat Light from his own father in 1962 and continued to grow the business up until his death. He was considered one of the biggest advocates for the commercial fishing industry.

After the ecumenical service ended, boats departed for the waters around the Barnegat Lighthouse, where the actual blessing was completed.

“The blessings take place near some of the most turbulent water around the island, perhaps a little reminder that there are real dangers in the sea,” Father Conway explained.

While the event is solemn in nature, recognizes the dangers involved with working on the water, and pays tribute to those lost, Mayor Larson noted it is also festive and joyous. “Everybody gets involved and takes rides in the boats,” he said, noting that the planning revolves around the tides and the ability of the boats to get in and out of the basin. He concluded, “It is a real celebration of the bounty of the sea.”