Annual Blessing of Sydney's Fishing Fleet a Much Loved Tradition

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
17 Sep 2015

Sydney fisherman Paul Bagnato

A crowd of more than 15,000 is expected at this year's Blessing of the Fishing Fleet at the Sydney Fish Market on Sunday 27 September. The Blessing will be conducted by Father Christopher Slattery.

As in previous years, Fr Slattery will also be the one who will transport the superb life-size hand-painted carved wooden sculpture of Santa Maria di Porto Salvo, protector and guardian of sea farers from its home at Strathfield's historic St Martha's Catholic Church where he is parish priest, to the Fish Market at Blackwattle Bay where the statue will again play a central role in the procession and Blessing.

"The first year the Blessing was held we brought the statue from St Martha's to the Markets by boat in the prow of one of the fishing boats. But it is very fragile so for the past few years we have carefully packed it up and I have driven her to the Markets by car," says Fr Slattery.

Although the statue continues to be an essential part of the procession and will again be carried from fish shop to fish shop and along the wharf where Fr Slattery will bless each individual fishing boat, it will no longer be placed on the prow of one of the vessels. Instead it will have pride of place at a position on shore.

"The Blessing of the Fishing Fleet is a lovely tradition especially for fishermen and all those involved in fishing and the fish market. There is also an evangelical dimension to it as well as a celebration of creation and God's presence," he says.

Fishing Fleet at Sydney Fish Market

As parish priest, Fr Slattery has also found that during the year many parishioners choose to pray beside the statue of Santa Maria di Porto Salvo.

"Just as fishermen and sea farers pray for intercession by Mary for God's protection to keep them safe, parishioners who are in no danger at sea nevertheless pray for Mary's intercession to help them during stormy and difficult times in their lives," he says and calls the statue a "beautiful and cultural enrichment" for St Martha's Parish.

Roughly translated Santa Maria di Porto Salvo means St Mary of Safe Ports or Safe Harbour, and the sculpture carried each year in the procession is an exact replica of the much loved statue carried in a similar procession each year by the fishermen of Bagnara Calabra, the small coastal fishing town in Southern Italy's Calabria region.

Venerated by generation after generation of fishermen in Bagnara Calabra, birthplace of many of Sydney's professional fishermen and fishing families, a replica of the statue of Santa Maria di Porto Salvo was commissioned by Salvatore "Sam" Bagnato, patriarch of Sydney's well known fishing family and at the time, President of the local Association of Bagnara Calabra.

Sam Bagnato had established Sydney's annual Blessing of the Fishing Fleet several years before, but until 2012 the statue of Santa Maria di Salvo Porto was a borrowed one from a church in Wollongong.

The replica of Bagnara Calabra's statue of the guardian of sea farers and fishermen arrived in Sydney from Italy and was superb in every detail.  On 26 July 2012 the sculpture of the Madonna was consecrated by the Archdiocese of Sydney's Auxiliary Bishop Terry Brady at a moving and very Italian ceremony at St Martha's Church, Strathfield.

Four months later, the statue accompanied by Fr Slattery, was taken by boat to Blackwattle Bay where Bishop Peter Comensoli as Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Sydney presided over the  Blessing of the Fishing Fleet at the Sydney Fish Market which marked the first time the statue was part of the ceremony and admired by thousands of Sydneysiders.

Salvatore - Sam - Bagnato and wife Ada with the handpainted perfect replica of Calabria's Santa Marta di Porto Salvo statue

Sadly the following year after a serious illness, Sam Bagnato passed away and it was decided out of respect for the family and their grief, to postpone the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet.

But in 2014 encouraged by Ada Bagnato, Sam's wife of many years who has now taken over as President of the local Bagnara Calabra Association the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet was held.

"Sam's legacy lives on with Sydney's annual Blessing of the Fishing Fleet, which he established, and with the beautiful statue of Santa Maria di Salvo Porto which he commissioned," says Paul Bagnato, Sam's cousin and fellow fisherman.

Santa Maria di Salvo Porto is an integral part of Calabra Bagnara's culture and history, he says.

Legend has it that a painting representing the Madonna was being transported by ship near the coast of Bagnara when a massive storm struck. In the wild seas and ferocious winds it seems unlikely the craft or anyone aboard would survive. As the boat was tossed by monstrous seas, the priest escorting the painting asked all aboard to join him in prayer to the Holy Mother to ask for her help in saving the ship and their lives.

"That's when a miracle happened and the storm abated and all were saved along with the ship," Paul says explaining that his is when the devotion to her as protector and guardian of fishermen and sea farers began.

"Her elevation as Protector to All Seafarers goes back many centuries and in Bagna Calabra there is a church  dedicated to her where fishermen and their families pray for good seas and a safe return," he says.

The Madonna helps ensure the coming year of fishing is safe and bountiful

This year for the first time the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet procession through the Fish Market which will be led by Fr Slattery and the statue and will be accompanied a 25-piece Italian band.

"It's a day of celebration," says Paul Bagnato with the Blessing followed by events for the whole family including a spaghetti race.

"Spaghetti with a really good sauce is prepared by one of the chefs at the Market and then adults as well as children are invited to compete against one another," he says.

Instead of being able to use utensils or their hands, competitors' hands are placed behind their backs and they have to try and eat the spaghetti from a bowl as fast as they can.

"It's great fun and always gets plenty of laughs," Paul says.

Other events at the Fish Market following the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet include performances by Italian singers Chris Ninni from The Voice and Natalie Colavito from the X Factor.

"Young and old, everyone is welcome," Paul Bagnato says.