Fremantle Blessing of the Fleet Festival 2022

• James Paratore and his extended family on his father Joe’s boat Vanessa James.

Putting all the worries behind

James Paratore and his extended family on his father Joe’s boat Vanessa James.

JAMES PARATORE is up before dawn most mornings to fish, then heads to work as a GP. 

It’s something he’s done all his life, helping his father, Joe (72), while at school, and university completing pharmacy and medicine degrees.

“So first a pharmacist, then a doctor, but always a fisherman!” James told the Herald. 

Almost the whole family is hard at work as well, with James’s wife Ana Sivak doing orders, sister Vanessa and brother-in-law Anthony Fico setting up web and Facebook pages, and even nephews Reuben (12) and Roman (9) helping out.

James said it wouldn’t be long until three-year-old daughter Aria is on board too! 

Like most of Freo’s fishers, it’s a family affair, steeped in the port city’s rich and colourful migrant history. 

Past generations were artisan fishermen in Falcone and Messina, Sicily, with uncles Zio Franco in Follonica and Zio Filippo in Falcone still fishing.     

“It’s really in our blood and extends to the women too, helping to mend nets and prepare the gear,” James said. 

Joe arrived in Australia alone in 1968 to fish with his uncle Carmelo Barresi on board Franica at Ledge Point. 

He later fished with cousins from Fremantle to Bunbury before buying a share in the 38-footer Blue Seas in 1980.  

In those days they’d catch their own bait.

The days were long, and there wasn’t much rest.

That’s where the story of the small family fishing business in Australia began, and local history was written. 

James juggles his roles as fisherman, and doctor, which he says gives him a unique work-life balance. 

“The two jobs are very different: one in the confines of a medical centre, the other 20 miles off the coast of Fremantle, just south 

of Rotto, with a breeze over our shoulders, greeting the morning sun, salt spray to wet our faces, and the sweet sounds of the ocean around us,” he said. 

“At those times, the worries of the world are behind us, and it’s just Dad and me doing what our ancestors have done for generations.”

It’s the memory of those generations which is behind James’s other passion – the WA Fishers Lost at Sea Memorial Project.

Formed a year ago after local fishers like James and the WA Fishing Industry Council met and decided the human cost of building up one of the state’s most important industries hadn’t been adequately recognised.

Mr Paratore said the Blessing of the Fleet was an opportune time to remind people that while the prayers are aimed at seeing the city’s fishers return safe and with full baskets, the sea can still extract a deadly toll and that this should be remembered and recognised.

The Mary was lost but never forgotten

THE tragic story of the Mary, inspired research into the creation of a Fishers’ Memorial dedicated to the lives of those lost at sea in Western Australia. Rolando Lo Presti’s father – Stefano Saverio Lo Presti (and his crew), had shared a meal with the perished men the evening prior to the incident. His vessel, the Capo D’Orlando was also involved in the search rescue.

The 55-foot lugger Mary capsized approximately three miles off Cervantes on 1 October 1946. 

The Mary was owned by Gaetano Tomba and his brother Bartolo, as well as Luigi Pittorino – they all lived on Suffolk Steet and originated from Filicudi, one of eight islands that make up the Aeolian archipelago near Sicily.

In September 1946 The Mary, skippered by Domenico Cappellutti and a crew of four, was returning from Shark Bay where they’d chased the schools of snapper during the winter.

They were in a happy mood, for the season had been good – so good they were running late. 

Heading into a storm they sheltered off Cervantes Island, but during a heavy gale the Mary dragged her moorings and went aground.

One of the crew walked the beach from Cervantes to Jurien Bay to notify others of their predicament.

Gaetano Tomba initially heard the boat had been lost, but the Sea Queen arrived in Fremantle with Mary crew member Antonio Marino bearing the good news.

Bartolo Tomba then left Freo in the fishing boat Stella to repair and refloat the Mary.

The repair work was completed on September 29, and she was rigged up the next day.

Everybody was anxious to get home to Fremantle as the crew of the Mary had not been home for 40 days, but during the night a big swell developed.

Another boat, the Lapwing, had been brought in to tow the Mary.

Just as the Lapwing cleared a sandbar and reef, it was confronted with a 50-foot wave. It survived, but the Mary struck deep trouble.

This first wave broke over the Mary which was then crossing the bar and the vessel shipped much water and turned the vessel off to one side towards the south. 

All of the crew of the Mary were on deck and one member was washed overboard, and the skipper (Domenico Cappellutti) was hanging onto the bulwark at the stern of the ship. 

Another big wave then struck the Mary’s side and overturned her. 

At the time the Mary also had full sail on and it is likely the second wave filled her sails with water, forcing her over. 

Leonard Back had been clinging to the cabin top at the after end of the boat, he let go as the boat turned and when he broke surface saw the keel of the Mary. 

The remainder of the crew, including Back, were swept in the sea and the Mary sank.

The lone survivor was Leonard James Back (age 24), a ship-wright of Swanbourne Street in Fremantle.

To this day, the loss of the Mary remains one of the largest losses of life in a single day ever recorded in the WA Commercial Fishing Industry. 

Six families were left without a husband, father, brother and son. Fifteen children were left fatherless. It devasted the Fremantle Italian fishing families and it is fair to say, the community was never quite the same again.

Domenico Cappelluti
Mauro Caputo
Giovanni Germinario
Salvatore (Silvio) Marchese
Antonio Marino
Luigi Pittorino
Drowned at Sea
October 1, 1946

Never Found

• The Madonna di 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.

Every 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.

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