Atlantic City wouldn’t be what it is without the Atlantic Ocean.
From the flashiness of the Prohibition Era through its status as the gambling capital of the East Coast, Atlantic City’s top draw has always been its status as an exciting seaside resort town.
That fact is not lost on the city’s Catholic leaders, who get together every August to bless the ocean and celebrate its intimate bond with the city.
It’s a thousand-year-old Italian tradition that started when leaders held a mock wedding between the Mediterranean Sea and Venice, a naval and commercial power.
“Think about how Venice has canals instead of streets,” said the Rev. Jon Thomas, pastor of the citywide parish of St. Monica in Atlantic City.
“That tradition was brought over by Italian immigrants to Atlantic City who thought ‘It’s the same thing here. Atlantic City, the Atlantic Ocean — there’s a bond there. We need to renew it once a year to ask God’s blessings upon it through this Wedding of the Sea tradition.'”
Per the tradition, this year the festivities began with a Mass inside Boardwalk Hall attended by more than 2,000 faithful.
“We observe this tradition, sisters and brothers, to remind us of the union of this city and the sea, the Atlantic Ocean. We call on the Lord who created the ocean — we ask his blessing,” Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan said during his sermon. The Camden Diocese covers the Catholic churches in Atlantic City.
Following the Mass, Sullivan and Atlantic Mayor Don Guardian proceeded out to the beach, rode a boat a short distance off the shore, and dropped a wreath into the water to complete the blessing.
Crowds packed the beach to watch the maritime ceremony, while many others stayed behind on the Boardwalk as a brass band played. Attendees took turns placing money and flowers on a human-size statue of the Virgin Mary, which was guarded by a handful of Atlantic City police officers.
“If you’re a religious person, this is, like, the greatest thing,” said Norristown, Pennsylvania, resident Ralph D’Ambrosio, who’s been coming to the ceremony for more than 50 years.
“It brings everybody together and, you know, makes everybody a little better.”
‘To lose our church is … a shock’
But for some parishioners, this year’s event was bittersweet.
It took place as the Diocese of Camden was rolling out its parish consolidation plan in Atlantic City, which saw four parishes become one and resulted in two church closures.
“We are opposed to the decision to close the churches,” said Richard Negro, a parishioner of St. Michael’s, one of the churches slated to shut.
As he’s done for years, Negro attended the Wedding of the Sea this weekend, but this time he was collecting signatures for a petition to keep St. Michael’s and St. Monica’s open.
He said it was ironic to be petitioning, because it was the congregation of St. Michael’s, a historically Italian church, that originally brought the Wedding of the Sea tradition to Atlantic City.
“Thinking that [St. Michael’s, which] is responsible for this big event that happens every year and hopefully will continue in the future, is going to be closed,” he said, “it’s kind of contradictory.”
Cathy Zymewski, who comes from a long line of St. Michael’s parishioners, called the consolidation disappointing.
“Atlantic City’s lost so much over the years that to lose our church is, like, a shock,” she said.
Both churches are scheduled to close for good in September.