Annual Blessing of the Fleet at St. Clement's Island

ST. CLEMENT'S ISLAND — The scene for the Seventh District Optimist’s 33rd Blessing of the Fleet is on the grounds of the St. Clement’s Island - Potomac River Museum, well in sight of the historic St. Clement’s Island. The two-day event will be held this year on Sept. 30 from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Oct. 1 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Rich in history and tradition, The Blessing of the Fleet combines that history with today’s artists and craftsmen, entertainment, a boat parade and the blessing of the fleet, Sunday Mass, Southern Maryland cooking, the play "A Tide of Tolerance," children’s events and Saturday fireworks. In the fall of 1633 Leonard Calvert and about 140 colonists set sail on two ships, the Ark of London and the Dove, seeking religious freedom from Protestant-ruled England. On March 25,1634, after a treacherous trip across the Atlantic, they sailed into the Potomac River and landed on St. Clement’s Island, Md. A short time after their arrival, Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first recorded Catholic Mass in the English-speaking Colonies to give thanks for a safe journey. At that time they set up a cross and took possession of this country "for our Savior, and for our sovereign Lord the King of England," as Father White wrote in his journal. St. Clement’s Island continued to be a focal point on the Potomac for the settlers. St. Clement’s had its share of notable moments in Maryland history, not the least of which was its designation as the site where religious toleration first took root in America. The colonists later settled along the St. Mary’s River with the first Maryland colony being established as St. Mary’s City. Time passed in the Potomac River and the cavaliers of old passed with it. From its vantagepoint, swept by wind, storms and tidal change, St. Clement’s Island, witnessed many evolutions. From the 18th century well into the 20th, it bore the name Blackistone Island, after the Blackistone family, who owned the island for 162-years. Just across the river from its shores, three notable figures of American history would be born in Westmoreland County, Va.: George Washington, James Madison, and later, a distinguished Southern gentleman by the name of Robert Edmund Lee, who would play a pivotal role in one of the bloodiest and tragic wars in American History, the War Between the States. In the mid 1960s a group of childhood friends, some of whom were descendants of original settlers, began a club outside the confines of church social life. They grew up surrounded by history, in view of the island of the first landing only a half-mile off shore from Colton’s Point. The Optimist Club of the Seventh District was formed to provide community services throughout the county of St. Mary’s. Father John J. Madigan S.J., pastor of Holy Angels Church in Avenue, Md., suggested to the club president, James Banagan, that they organize an event to bless the oyster boats as they began the harvest season and to commemorate the history of their locale. This event, conducted at the end of September, was called the Blessing of the Fleet. The young service group worked with local waterman to make the event a success. A few advertisements through newspapers and radio announcements brought more than 700 people to the first Blessing of the Fleet. The following year, with the help of the Waterman’s Association and the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship, more than 5,000 people attended. These two organizations continue to organize the event, which has expanded to two days. Mass is still being offered and the Blessing of the Fleet is an integral part of the weekend, which also features marching bands, children’s activities and a boat parade. St. Clement’s Island, once 61 acres, has eroded over the years to today’s 40 acres. To preserve the island the state appropriated $200,000 in funds in the 1970s. Plans were then made to establish a museum to capture the history of St. Mary’s County and the importance of St. Clement’s Island. Participants may also visit St. Clement’s Island by boat and set foot on the soil on which our early settlers stood. To commemorate that event and the birthplace of religious freedom, a forty-foot concrete cross was erected on the island in 1934. Today, the Optimist Club of the Seventh District has grown to 106 members and is committed to community service and the development of our youth as stated in their international motto and goal "Friend of Youth." The Blessing of the Fleet is their largest fund-raiser and all of the funding from the event goes back into the local community. Admission is $4 per person; school aged children and younger are free. Admission includes entrance to the museum and boat rides to St. Clement’s Island. For information call St. Clement’s Museum at 301/769-2222.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2000