ANACORTES – When his pastor asked him to coordinate a nautical pilgrimage, Mark Leopold pictured a flotilla of just three or four boats. But that’s not quite what Father Mel Strazicich, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Anacortes and St. Paul Parish in Swinomish, had in mind.
“He was thinking on a more grand scale,” Leopold said. “He told me, ‘We’re going to go around the parish boundary and bless all our parishioners.’”
Kyle Marth, left, and Mark Leopold, members of St. Mary Parish in Anacortes, carry a statue of Our Lady of Fatima as they get ready to embark on a 50-mile pilgrimage aboard a chartered boat. Their pastor, Father Mel Strazicich, right, celebrated Mass during the pilgrimage. Photo: Courtesy St. Mary Parish
It was May 2017 and the parishes wanted a way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of Fatima. So they chartered a 98-foot vessel with seating for 60 parishioners, who went off on a “prayerful pilgrimage” around the five primary islands located in the two parishes Father Strazicich serves.
“It was as wonderful faith-building experience,” Leopold said. “And it was also an opportunity to build relationships, spending time with fellow parishioners.”
With the success of that trip, the parish decided to go even bigger this year, chartering a catamaran that could accommodate 150 people for the May 11 voyage, Leopold said.
St. Mary parishioners brought aboard a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, while parishioners of St. Paul, located on the Swinomish Reservation, brought a relic (on loan from the Tekakwitha Conference) and statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized.
“Both were signs of the two parishes’ unity across cultures in our one Catholic faith,” Father Stazicich said in an email. “And prayers to bless the natural environment (the waters and islands and all the resources and people with them) as sacred gifts of the Creator are very important values to the Native community as a whole,” he said.
During the voyage, everyone could hear and see better during Mass, due to the newer ship’s intercom system and television screens, Leopold said. The intercom system also meant that passengers could spread out on the boat as various parishioners led the rosary.
St. Mary’s parishioner Darannie Waham, who was confirmed Catholic in 2017, said praying together in a unique setting made her feel like she was a part of the parish family.
“That sense of belonging and peacefulness was a beautiful gift,” Waham said.
Father Mel Strazicich, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Anacortes and St. Paul Parish in Swinomish, celebrates Mass for 150 of his parishioners aboard the Island Explorer 5. The vessel was chartered for a 50-nautical-mile voyage tracing the boundaries of the two parishes. The ship’s technology enabled the Mass to be seen and heard by all onboard. Also pictured are the co-celebrant, Jesuit Father Mark McGregor, and altar server Asa Waham. Photo: Mark Leopold
Those aboard also shared a meal that included 75 pounds of fresh shrimp donated by St. Paul parishioners, said Mary Joy, who coordinated the dinner.
“We were also blessed to have representatives from [the] Lummi [Tribe] along with us for the sailing this year,” Leopold said in an email, “as we also had time to partially circumnavigate Lummi Island.”
During the four-hour trip, parishioners could participate in a special prayer experience. “We were invited to go by the rail and spend 10 minutes in prayer, slowly dropping salt that had been blessed by Father Straz into the water,” Waham explained.
Judy Graham leads a decade of the rosary during an on-the-water pilgrimage May 11 for parishioners of St. Mary Parish in Anacortes and St. Paul in Parish in Swinomish. Graham, a St. Mary’s parishioner, holds a relic of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized. The relic was on loan to St. Mary Parish during May. Photo: Mark Leopold
They also dropped medals of St. Benedict in the water, to call for God’s blessing and protection. “Picturing [the medals] at the bottom of the sea as an outline of the parish boundary,” Waham said, “is a good reminder of God’s faithfulness and obedience to protect us and be alongside us.”
The spirituality of the experience was enhanced by the good weather, Waham said. “The greatest gift that God blessed us with was the blue sky and glassy water,” she said. “It was amazing to be out in God’s creation.”