Blessing of the Fleet

The Blessing of the Fleet

Each year on the second Sunday of March, a unique and long-standing service is held at the Mariners’ Church of Detroit—the annual blessing of the fleet.  Since 1965, generations of professional sailors, recreational boaters, and others connected to the life and work on the Great Lakes have attended the ceremony, officially known as the Great Lakes Memorial Service and Blessing of the Fleet.  This service includes the last call, a reading of the names of mariners who have passed in the previous year followed by the tolling of a bell.  The blessing of the fleet portion entails the presentation of the flags, burgees, and pennants of commercial lines, yacht clubs, and related organizations to the altar.The event is a recognition of the dangers sailors face, andhas becoming a significantannual event for many in the Great Lakes maritime community. 

 

In this footage from the 1984 ceremony, the Canadian flag, the flag from one of the Boblo boats, and the City of Detroit’s flag flown at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum are even among those involved. 

 

Rev. Ingalls’ Idea

The roots of the tradition go back to 1949, when the church held its first ever blessing of the fleet, however it began there as an annual fixture on May 30, 1965.  A mere four months into his lengthy role as rector of Mariners’ Church, Reverend Richard Ingalls envisioned reviving the service as an annual tradition.  For this occasion, the new rector filed for a parade permit to lead a procession of 40 participants from the church, to the riverfront.  From there, he would then board thetugboatFlorence K. to cast a wreath into the water.  The Detroit Fire Department’s fireboat Kendall, as well as members of the International Ship Masters Association, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police all took part.  Despite dreary weather, the event was a successRev. Ingalls had indeed launched a new tradition.  The program underwent minor tweaks in these early years, eventually taking the form we know nowBy 1970 the service was moved to March,near the start of the Great Lakes navigation season, and the next year the procession to the riverfront was abandoned, and the entire service was instead held inside the church. 

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In the early years of the service, an ark topped with a model of the U.S.S. Constitution was carried in the procession to the riverfront.  The ark was provided by Carolyn Elizabeth Booth in honor of her father, shipbuilder Merton Elmer Farr. 

 

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum’s Connection 

Contemporaneously to these early memorial services, an annual blessing of the fleet was also held at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.  This ceremony incorporated the tolling of the bell formerly of the passenger ship Octorara in remembrance of sailors lost that year.  In 1968 when Rev. Ingalls invited then Dossin curator Bob Lee to take part in the Great Lakes Memorial Service, the museum’s ceremony was consequently folded into the one at Mariners’ Church.  In 1973, the Dossin placed the bell of the Octorara on a long term loan to the church, where it remains to this day, tolling during last call each year.