Our Lady of the Rivers and Blessing of the Fleet
A river community’s prayers to Mary saved it from rising floodwaters in 1951. In gratitude, the town erected a 25-foot statue to Our Lady of the Rivers that has become the site of the town’s annual Blessing of the Fleet.
1951 flood threatens a tiny town
Portage des Sioux, Missouri lies near the confluence of three rivers: the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri. It’s a small town – there were only about 400 residents in 2011 – situated on the Mississippi across from Elsah, Illinois. In 1951, when raging floodwaters threatened to destroy the town, its residents prayed to Mary to be spared. Led by Rev. Edward Schlattmann of St. Francis of Assisi Church, they gave her the title Our Lady of the Rivers.
As history records, the flooding waters parted and traveled just above and below the river town without entering it. To pay tribute to Mary, the town made plans for a shrine in her honor. Eventually, a 25-foot fiberglass statue of Our Lady of the Rivers mounted on a 20-foot concrete base was erected. Designed by Mary McClory and dedicated Oct. 13, 1957, it is the fourth tallest statue of Mary in the world.
Each side of the shrine’s square base bears a plaque. On one is The Memorare, a famous prayer written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.
According to a plaque on the base, the shrine “serves as a reminder of the tremendous power of nature and a tribute to its incredible beauty.”
Over the years, the shrine has become a major navigation aid for boaters spending their summers on the river and the site of the annual Blessing of the Fleet. As each vessel in the water parade approaches the base of the Shrine, it slows so the priest from St. Francis can bestow a blessing upon it.
Searching for the mythological mermaid
About 10 years ago, Tim and Lynn Tighe joined the Con Trios Yacht Club in St. Charles, Mo. as well as the Blessing of the Fleet, Inc. committee. The couple reinvigorated what had been a declining event and suggested a theme each year with cruisers, sailboats, pontoons and other types of watercraft get all decked out for a summer river party. In 2007, it was “Toast Our Golden Anniversary” in honor of the parade’s 50th year. Other years have seen luaus and pirates; 2011 was the year of the mermaid.
Held the third Saturday in July, the parade itself is an exercise in logistics as two processions from opposite ends of the Mississippi River merge into one in front of the shrine. One group leaves from The Yacht Club of St. Louis at 1 p.m. and travels downstream. A second procession leaves at the same time from Harbor Point Yacht Club going upstream. Along the way, boaters from other marinas may jump in.
Somehow, it all comes together at 2:15 p.m. in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rivers. From there, the boaters pass in front of the Palisades Yacht Club where the boats are judged for awards.
When the parade is over, it’s party time! Awards are handed out in a nearby saloon and everyone kicks back and has a great time.
Blessing of the fleet worldwide
Blessing of the Fleet is not unique to Portage des Sioux. This tradition began centuries ago and is said to have begun in Mediterranean fishing communities. It’s primarily a Catholic practice with the priest’s blessing meant to ensure a safe and bountiful season. My husband hails from Mobile, Alabama where the shrimping community held similar blessings when he was growing up.
The blessings ritual varies by community and range from a just a simple ceremony to bless the boats to multi-day festivals that can include a mass, parades and pageantry.
However it’s played out, if you happen to get a chance to participate in or be a spectator to a Blessings of the Fleet event, go – you’ll be a witness to an age-old tradition.