ANACORTES – As they have for nearly 40 years, members of St. Mary Parish will carry an icon of St. Nicholas in procession to the Anacortes waterfront December 6 for the blessing of local fishermen and their fleet.
Celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas is important to this community, which includes a large contingent of Croatian immigrants and their descendants.
“Croatians are a coastal people and have a huge devotion to St. Nicholas,” said Maria Petrish, a St. Mary’s parishioner who was 8 years old when her family arrived in Anacortes in 1949, fleeing communism in their home country (then known as Yugoslavia). “There are many stories of St. Nicholas saving mariners from peril,” she said.
Many Croatian families who settled in Anacortes “came here to be fishermen, or became fishermen as they established their families in this community,” said Benjamin Maes, St. Mary’s pastoral associate for liturgy
So each December 6, a special Seafarers Mass is said at St. Mary’s before the procession downtown (see box for details). There, members of the Croatian fishing families, many wearing traditional attire, place a big bouquet of roses in front of the waterfront statue known as “Our Lady of the Sea.” St. Mary’s pastor, Father Mel Strazicich, blesses two wreaths of remembrance. One is laid at the tall memorial inscribed with names of fishermen who have died at sea; the other is tossed into the water, Maes said.
“Our parish community is very tight,” Maes said. “There’s a lot of togetherness and celebration and living our faith, celebrating our faith.”
Creating a shrine to St. Nicholas
After arriving in Anacortes, Petrish said, her father couldn’t understand why coastal communities in the U.S. didn’t have shrines to St. Nicholas. He was intent on changing that.
“I said, ‘Dad, America doesn’t venerate saints, it venerates Wall Street; forget about it,’” Petrish recalled.
Then one day family members drove past a dilapidated building (erected in 1891, it had housed a Presbyterian church) and decided to buy it, Petrish said. She and her husband, her parents and a cousin purchased and restored the structure, Petrish said, opening it as the The Croatian Cultural Center and a shrine to St. Nicholas.
As part of the St. Nicholas Day celebrations, the center hosts a reception after the waterfront events. And on the Sunday before December 6, the Anacortes community is invited to the center for a festive luncheon, Croatian folk dance performances and an appearance by St. Nicholas in his bishop’s miter and robe.
Celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas “connects us to a saint that was part of our lives as small children,” Petrish said. Even in the refugee camps in Italy, where she and her family spent two years after fleeing Yugoslavia, the tradition of St. Nicholas bringing gifts of oranges and nuts was kept, she said.
“Then as we grew up, our mother and father turned our devotion toward him as the saint of mariners,” Petrish said.
It’s the religious aspect of the St. Nicholas feast that is most important to Petrish, “of seeking saints’ intercessions on behalf of a specific community of supplicants — a nation, or skill, or profession,” she said. It’s something she also emphasizes during tours of the cultural center.
“I tell them he’s not the patron saint of department stores, he’s the patron saint of sailors,” Petrish said.
St. Nicholas celebration
Join St. Mary Parish and the Anacortes community in celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6:
• Seafarers’ Mass, 11a.m., St. Mary Church, 4001 St. Mary’s Drive, Anacortes
• Blessing ceremony, noon, Seafarers Memorial Park, 601 Seafarers Way, Anacortes
• Reception following, Croatian Cultural Center, 801 Fifth St., Anacortes