The 50th anniversary should have been 2006; however, since they missed the parade in 1993 due to the big flood (when the waters came up to Mary's feet), they decided to celebrate it in 2007. The theme was called, "Toast our Golden Anniversary." Many boats were decorated with gold and they paraded down the river.
Ever since the Blessing of the Fleet began, Captain Art Aubuchon has been a part of the Blessing of the Fleet Committee and has kept the grounds cleaned up around Our Lady. I have watched him tidy up around the shrine in the heat of the day. As he wiped his brow from sweat, he looked up and said, "It's all in the labor of love, honey." He has been dedicated to this event for the past 50 years. Aubuchon usually stands right by the priest as he does the blessing and then he stays to put everything away after it is over. He has lived in Portage Des Sioux all of his life and is a very interesting man to talk to because of his knowledge of the historical river town.
For 50 years, everyone has met at Palisades restaurant/bar, right next to the shrine, after the parade. They pass out awards for the best decorated boats for each category: cruiser, houseboat, runabout, sailboat and pontoon/deck boat. Port Arrowhead Marina has provided the judges and boats for those judges for the past several years.
Last year there were several changes to this event. For one, instead of having the event on the third Sunday of July, they had it on the fourth Saturday in July. I know there was a little confusion about that, but there were still almost a hundred boats that participated. After the parade, everyone met up river on the Illinois side at Grafton Harbor. It is a brand new harbor and a very nice place, run by DeSherlia Management.
The prizes this year were really amazing. There were three cash prizes, donated by Show me the Mississippi. The judges for this contest were Linda Sanchez, president of Show Me the Mississippi and several members selected from this year's membership. The winners of the cash contest included Alan Deutschmann, Tom Black and Mary Lou Smith.
Individual boat winners were presented with commemorative trophies, provided by the "Blessing of the Fleet, Inc." The judges for this Golden Anniversary celebration were James A. Svoboda, Past Commodore, Con Trios Yacht Club; Mark D. Warner, Mayor, Portage Des Sioux; and Harry T. Bussmann, III, Our Lady of the Rivers Shrine Committee. The winner for the pontoon/deck boat category was Alan Bull with his Odyssey pontoon from Alton Lake Estates.
The committee for the Blessing of the Fleet has designed a nice website. On the site you can find the history about the event, schedules, the new route of the parade and many great photos. The committee is run by Tim and Lynn Tighe, and the website is www.blessingofthefleetstl.com.
In the 2000 census, Portage Des Sioux recorded 351 people living in this St. Charles County town. Portage was founded in 1799 by the Spanish and the name was created from fleeing Sioux Indians, who used the town as a portage for their canoes. They carried their canoes through town and went from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River. This cut out several miles of paddling.
There is so much history to this small river town. People like Captain Aubuchon and Mary Villeret, head of the genealogy society in town, can tell you anything you want to know about it. Aubuchon's whole heart is in the shrine and the Blessing of the Fleet. His dedication to Our Lady of the Rivers is obvious by how well the area is always manicured and maintained. He is very proud of her and his town.
Since this event started, there have been three priests who have blessed the boats throughout the years. Father Schlattman did it from 1956 to 1993 and Father Mike Sandweg took over after that and blessed the boats until 2005 before he became ill. For two years now, Father Robert Banken has started doing the blessing. These priests are from St. Francis Church in Portage.
I spoke with Father Banken during the blessing last year and he has a wonderful sense of humor and did a great job with the blessing. It was a very hot July day as he performed the blessing, but he never complained. He even blessed my husband Mike as he flew over in his powered parachute, taking aerial pictures of the event. He told me that my husband needed a blessing, because he was a crazy man.
Even though there has been a lot of conflict about the blessing this year, it was still a successful event. One of the boats even let several gold balloons go floating in the air, as it passed by the shrine. I don't know what kind of changes this year will bring, but we are in hopes that they will come to some kind of agreement where everyone will be happy. No matter what happens, it is still a great time and a wonderful tradition to celebrate. This year's Blessing of the Fleet event is scheduled for Saturday, July 19 and like the first 50, it promises to be a lot of fun.