- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
It’s easy enough to recall how St. Clement’s Island became a noted icon of Maryland history, what with Leonard Calvert declaring the site for the beginnings of his new colony and Father Andrew White offering the first Roman Catholic Mass at the site upon reaching the New World in 1634. But how did the Blessing of the Fleet now celebrating its 45th year at the site come to be?
“It started out when Father Madigan, who was pastor at Holy Angels in Avenue came up with the idea,” said Robert Steele Pogue a longtime member and former president of the Seventh District Optimist Club, which sponsors the event.
Banigan asked the Optimist Club members in 1967, “why can’t we bless the boats?”
Madigan’s idea was to bless the oyster fleet before they went out to harvest.
“We only had about a month of preparation,” Pogue recalled. “But we ended up with 300 to 400 people. That’s how it started. Last year, we lost a day because of weather, but we can run 5,000 to 8,000 people on a good day. We’re certainly looking for those figures this year.”
Pogue said that folks who come to this year’s event noon-10 p.m. Oct. 6 and 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 7 “will have a lot of choices.
“We’re gearing things a little bit to the next generation down,” he said, “for those in their 30s and 40s. The entertainment we’re offering this year reflects that.”
Performances by No Green Jelly Beanz, the Pirhannas, Justin Crenshaw and The Sam Grow Band are sure to stir interest from the younger generation, he said.
“When we had our program up at the Optimist building for wounded war vets, we contacted Sam Grow and he was a really congenial person,” Pogue said. “He agreed to do the performance for half of what he normally charges. He told us, ‘If that’s too much I’ll do it for nothing.’ I wasn’t able to be there that day, but everyone tells me he’s really good.”
Pogue said the addition of Justin Crenshaw was to bring a little country music into the mix.
“I think we’re offering families a good range of music,” he said.
Pogue added the Optimists are laying out a larger area for people to watch the performances. They’ve relocated all of the food services to one area of the island.
He said that there will be plenty of activities for children ranging from performances by Super Magic Man Reggie Rice, facepainting, pony rides, a petting zoo, oyster tonging competition, Frank Trossbach’s toy John Deere tractor display, alpacas by Moore or Less Farm in Bushwood, carnival attractions and the Blue Sky Puppet Theater. There will also be a rock climbing wall.
Pogue said the Optimists no longer do the historical pageant and hasn’t for several years.
“We stopped that in the early ’90s in the first Iraq war when we were forced off the island,” he said. “We weren’t able to get the barges to transport people to the island. We were forced ashore at the last minute.”
The event still offers free boat rides and tractor rides to the site. He praised the efforts of Dick Gass to rebuild the St. Clements Island lighthouse. A $600,000 project funded by a nonprofit agency, Gass used the original plans to reconstruct the original structure which burned in 1955. The edifice was reconstructed with every detail intact, including copper guttering which drains into a basement cistern for water the lighthouse keeper would have used for laundry and bathing. Tour guides will be on hand to conduct visitors through the structure.
Pogue said the Maryland Dove will also be at the island again this year.
“For your $8 you get free parking, a free boat ride, lighthouse tours and you can go aboard the Maryland Dove,” Pogue noted.
Sunday events will include a waterfront Roman Catholic Mass at 10:30 a.m. with official ceremonies and award presentations to follow.
“It’s a good program,” Pogue said.
It should be mentioned that St. Clements Island still exists due to the efforts of former Optimist Club member and St. Mary’s County Historian Edwin Beitzell, who lobbied the state for funding to help preserve the island from erosion. The island, originally 400 acreas, had shrunk to just over 60 acres when Beitzell and fellow historian Charlie Fenwick went to work bringing the plight of the historic site to the attention of local legislators who helped procure money for rip rap to be placed around the island. Nearby Heron Island still marginally visible at low tide was one of several islands in the Wicomico and Potomac Rivers which have disappeared over the years.
“If you ask me, Edwin Beitzell and Charlie Fenwick saved St. Clements Island,” Pogue said.
Blessing of the Fleet
Where: 38370 Point Breeze Road End of Route 242 onto Bayview Drive, Colton Point
When: Noon-10 p.m. Oct. 6 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 7.
Admission: $8 per day at the gate or get a two-day pass for $10; children 12 and younger are admitted free