As Mother’s Day approaches, a familiar sight will take shape down by the city’s waterfront. Ships of all shapes and sizes will arrive to be blessed at the 81st Blessing of the Fleet and Mayfair today.
The program will begin at 10 a.m. and continue to 7 p.m. with the blessing itself being held at 2 p.m. at Mary Ross Park in Brunswick.
And while there will be activities and excitement for all ages, the origins of the event are connected to a more serious religious observance — the appearance of Our Lady of Fatima. Celebrated by Catholics, the occasion commemorates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three small children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1930.
Locally, members of St. Francis Xavier in downtown Brunswick have participated in a procession honoring this holy event for decades. One of the groups that has been front and center through it all — the Knights of Columbus.
A fraternal Catholic organization, the local branch is marking 100 years of service this year.
Bill Schuster, Grand Knight of the order, says that the Blessing and the procession of Our Lady of Fatima have always been important to their organization.
“Most of the Portuguese who came to Brunswick were members of the Catholic faith. They started procession with the Our Lady of Fatima statue, which goes through Hanover Park,” he said.
“The Knights have always helped with the procession and the Blessing of the Fleet. Some of our members have family that first came over from Portugal and they are still a part of it.”
While the Blessing of the Fleet, both in Brunswick and in Darien, is a key part of the organization’s annual agenda, it is by no means its only activity. Most of their work is focused on helping groups in the community through charitable donations and service.
“We have a little over 200 members, and we’re always looking for new, young members. But it helps us to work on our faith by helping people ... not just in our congregation but in the community,” he said.
“We have a Coats for Kids program that distributes coats to children in need in the northern part of the state. We collect food for our food pantry, St. Vincent DePaul. We have a team that buys and serves food at Manna House once a month and we’ve donated money for hurricane relief.”
The Knights have also worked closely with Skylark, a sexual health and care clinic in Brunswick. The funds the group raises from its annual oyster roast and weekly Bingo game go toward helping buy diapers and equipment for the clinic.
“We bought an ultrasound machine for Skylark a couple of years ago. We also support them with diapers and baby food for mothers in need,” he said. “That’s one of our major projects.”
The Knights help fund tuition for the Catholic school affiliated with the church, St. Francis Xavier, as well as seminary programs for future priests. The group also draws on its four principles of the order: charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism to direct its mission.
“Patriotism is one of our four principles and with that we are helping to fund a seminarian who will become a military chaplain,” Schuster said.
The giving nature of the organization connects back to the beginnings of the Knights. Founded by Father Michael J. McGivney in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1882, it was first focused on helping the Catholic community. Many of the parishioners were facing discrimination from labor unions during that time. McGivney wanted to help support those were had fallen on hard times through social services.
“At that time, people were having problems with getting work. They would also have trouble if the husband died or lost his job and there was no one to take care of the wife and children,” Schuster said.
Today, the Knights of Columbus have expanded their mission to include entire communities regardless of faith. There are currently more than 20,000 councils internationally. As of 2018, there were 1,967,585 Knights worldwide. The group is open to all Catholic men aged 18 or older.
Schuster notes that the group is a worthwhile cause, primarily as an outlet for service, but it also has a unique benefit for members.
“When you join, you can enroll in insurance. We have one of the top 10 rated insurance programs in the country ... so that is something you get back,” he said. “But of course, you do it to help others. We do it to strengthen our faith.”