A little extra joy in the Blessing
THE Joys of the Women Italian Choir (Le Gioie Delle Donne) is preparing to serenade Fremantle when its Italian community celebrates the long-standing Blessing of the Fleet next weekend.
Choir coordinator Silvana Wiley says the choir will sing three songs throughout the procession that winds its way through the port city from St Patrick’s Basilica to deliver the two Madonna statues to Fishing Boat Harbour.
Ms Wiley says the songs reflect the strong ties of the Italian fishing community to Fremantle, with a shared culture stretching almost a century.
Le Gioie Delle Donne was formed almost by accident 32 years ago by a group of Italian ladies who loved singing the folk songs they grew up with. Soon enough, the choir developed and was joined by women with both Italian heritage or with a love of the Italian culture.
“Our choir is for everyone, not only Italians. We welcome anyone who loves the culture and wants to learn the language,” Ms Wiley said.
The choir’s aim is to pass on the messages of the old folk songs and the Italian culture to their families and to the wider community.
“Even though I was born in Perth I always wanted to get more involved in my culture, I joined the choir to celebrate it and learn the language better,” Ms Wiley said.
There are currently 17 members of the choir ranging from 40 to 89 years old and they are looking to expand into the younger demographic to preserve the rich folk music tradition of Italy.
The women’s choir has been active in the local and wider community for many years and performs regularly at aged care homes, senior centres and multicultural events but this the first time they have been asked to perform at the Blessing of the Fleet festival.
“We took out two birds with one stone as we love to get out into the community and sing and also many of the ladies in the choir wanted to be a part of the procession as well.”
This year the procession will take a slight detour down Mouat Street, as the organising committee has been fostering closer ties with Notre Dame University.
The Blessing of the Fleet procession will take place Sunday October 23 at 2pm, starting at St Patrick’s Basilica with the blessing of the statues Madonna dei Martini and Madonna de Capo d’Orlando.
The Star of the Sea
SHE stands 152cm tall, her replica figure dressed in a bright red sash held up by two baby angels.
Wearing a crown and halo of stars, her gown adorned in gold craypots and wedding rings, the divine statue moves through the streets on the shoulders of fishermen praying for a safe and bountiful season while children cradle flowers and sing hymns.
That is how many Australians of Italian descent remember their first glimpses of the Star of the Sea. Our Lady of Martyrs. Queen of the Universe. This year the statue will shine even brighter, having undergone a major restoration.
Ever year, thousands flock to the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour to witness one of the state’s biggest religious and civic ceremonies, the “blessing” of the fishing fleet.
This year’s Blessing is being held on Sunday, October 23, with a mass at St Patrick’s Basilica, Fremantle at 9.30am and the procession kicking off at 2pm.
Celebrated around Australia and overseas, the annual ritual had a rocky start in Fremantle, the event at first opposed by the local Catholic priest and ridiculed by locals.
The tradition was introduced in 1946 by a group of fishermen led by Francesco Raimondi at a time when thousands of Italian migrants had been released from internment camps.
It was early September 1946 and the weather was not kind for fishing, so the fishermen went to church instead. After mass, they decided to hold the annual “festa” or festival.
The first official blessing ceremony in Fremantle was held in 1948 by Italian fishermen from Molfetta and Capo d’Orlando, which later became sister cities of Fremantle.
In Port Pirie, South Australia, the first festival was held in 1934; Adelaide 1954; Tuncurry, NSW 1958; and Sydney 1984.
One of the earliest festivals in the US was held in 1927 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the event based at Sinatra Park (named for Hoboken’s favourite son Frank Sinatra and used as the setting for the 1954 film On The Waterfront).
In Molfetta, the first procession was held in 1840, though the tradition dates back to the early 12th century.
In Fremantle, leaving St Patrick’s Basilica on Adelaide Street, the symbol of Mary holding baby Jesus is carried through the port city until it reaches the harbour where the assembled fleet pays homage to their patron.
This is the Madonna dei Martiri of Molfetta, paraded for the first time in 1950 before being taken out to sea by a local fishing boat, Invincible.
Before that, an icon or image of the madonna was carried in the procession because the statue had not yet been made.
A second silver statue, the 25cm Madonna di Capo d’Orlando, was donated to Fremantle in 1952 after a visit to Capo d’Orlando by Sicilian fisherman Francesco Vinci.
In 1954, both statues joined the procession. Both are housed in the Marian Chapel in the basilica and both are loaded into separate boats.
The legend goes that a boat filled with injured and dying Crusaders returned from the Holy Land in 1188 and found a Byzantine-style icon of the madonna and child floating on the water. They took it to a hospice built in 1162 in Molfetta on the orders of the Norman King, William II. The statue honours soldiers who died as martyrs of the faith.
Other versions have the Crusaders bringing back with them paintings and pictures of the madonna and child which they’d carried into battle for protection.
For generations in Molfetta, people would attribute many miracles to the icons they worshipped.
In 1485, Turkish pirates in the Adriatic entered Molfetta and looted the church. They left the painting of the Madonna and set fire to the church, only to reportedly be thwarted by the hand of God when their boats would not move. Fearful of having offended some deity, they left the loot on the beach and sailed off. The church was destroyed but, according to legend, the painting was neither burnt nor damaged.
In 1530, the image of the madonna and child surrounded by angels is said to have appeared in the sky over Molfetta and scared off French soldiers poised to overrun the town.
In 1560, earthquakes destroyed several towns and villages around Molfetta but the seaport was unscathed—another sign from the town’s protector.
In 1840, the first carved statue of the madonna was made in nearby Naples and donated to Molfetta, which held its first procession on August 30 that year.