GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 3, 2008

Lost Fishermen Immortalized In Bronze

Barbara Taormina

No matter what becomes of the harbor and the city's struggling fleet over the next few decades, Gloucester's identity will be forever tied to its fishing heritage.

And part of history's hold on the port lies in the long list of more than 5,000 fishermen who were lost at sea.

Not only is it an enormous sacrifice, it is a loss that touches almost everyone with any connection to Gloucester.

This summer, the city will finally have a memorial that has been talked about for years -- a permanent list of all Gloucester fishermen lost at sea that many believe will complete the Man at the Wheel.

The list will be cast in bronze and erected on a semicircle of 10 granite blocks in front of the Fishermen's statue on Stacy Boulevard.

"The memorial will be closure for a lot of people," said Gaspar Lafata, who is heading up the committee that designed the project and is raising the money to erect it. "We are letting the rest of the world know who we are. It's another reason for the city to be proud."

Graphic designer Philip Cusumano, who has been working closely with Lafata, agreed that the new memorial will bring a more human element to Gloucester's universal statue to fishermen.

"It fulfills the idea that these souls whose lives are gone be honored," Cusumano said.

The memorial committee admits a list of all those lost at sea is not a new idea. For years, different people have floated different ideas, including a line of names on the sidewalk and a wall of names engraved by The Tavern Restaurant.

But none of those projects ever gained momentum. This time around, the memorial has a wider net of support, including the backing of city officials.

The project began last year when Lafata and Cusumano sketched out the design for a wall of names much like the Vietnam War Memorial. The idea was to include the name of every fisherman lost at sea from 1623 to today.

Creating a series of granite blocks to surround the statue seemed a natural to the memorial committee. Not only is it one of the city's most popular tourist spots, it's right in the heart of the Boulevard, where so many locals take at least one walk every season.

The committee also enlisted the help of the Public Works Department to make some alterations at the site.

"We have a proposal to cut back the grass islands approximately 25 feet on both sides of the statue," Cusumano explained. "It will open up the plaza a little for visitors and special events like to memorial service for fishermen."

For help with the names, the committee turned to Roberta Sheedy, who had already been busy compiling a list of names for her website www.DowntoSea.com

"It was something I had been working on for three, four, maybe five years," said Sheedy, who began her project while tracing her own family history. "It was just something I found interesting and that I thought was important."

Although Sheedy spent countless weekends in Sawyer Free Library combing through old newspapers for the names and stories of local fishermen lost at sea, her research only reached back to 1830.

Help with the earlier names came from the Gloucester Archives Committee, who had been working on their own list of fishermen lost at sea.

The committee took Sheedy's list and their own collection of names and was in the process of checking it against their resources and records when another type of disaster struck. A water pipe in City Hall burst, which led to a flood in the Archives Office, where most of the work on the memorial list was kept.

Months of research was lost but the Archives Committee picked up the pieces and began recreating a list, which is being published today so the public can check for any errors or omissions.

"The Archives Committee really went above and beyond with this project," said Sheedy. "They made a valuable contribution."

In creating the list, both Sheedy and the Archives Committee stayed within certain boundaries. Any native Gloucester fisherman lost on a fishing voyage on any fishing vessel from any port was included.

Also included are the names of any fisherman lost while working on Gloucester vessels regardless of his place of origin.

Finally, the age of victims was not considered. Boys who drowned or died while working next to their fathers are also named on the list.

Passengers on fishing boats or other vessels and men involved in trade or military activities will not be included in this particular memorial.

Sheedy believes the simple list of names will be one of the most powerful tributes created for Gloucester's fishermen.

"When that memorial is up and people just stand there, they will be blown away," she said. "The scope is incredible. It's amazing that many men from such a small place disappeared or died."

But Sheedy and the other committee members also hope the memorial provides some solace to families whose fathers, husbands, brothers and sons will be on the list.

And according to Helen Downey, who lost her first husband Joseph Parisi on the F/V St. Stephen in 1962, the memorial will do just that.

Like many families who endured a loss at sea, Downey and her three children always wondered about the husband and father who never returned from a fishing trip.

"There will always be that void," she said.

But Downey feels that the citywide services and memorials help families to understand and accept their particular brand of grief, which often has no defined closure.

"You don't go looking for things like the City Hall list of fishermen who were lost," she said. "But still, my kids know their father's name is up there and I'm sure this memorial will also mean a lot to them."

Once the names on the list have been reviewed by the public, the memorial committee will turn its full attention to raising the money needed to complete the project.

The memorial is expected to cost $120,000 and so far the committee has raised half that amount through private donations.

Last year, state Rep. Anthony Verga requested $50,000 in state funding to help pay for the memorial. That request was approved by the House and is now being considered by the state Senate.

But the committee intends to move forward with the project, whatever the outcome of that budget decision.

"We are planning on funding the memorial privately," said committee member Patrick Scalli. "We will welcome any donations from the state but right now we are depending on the public."

Anyone who would like to contribute to the memorial can send a donation to the Fishermen's Memorial Find, Cape Ann Savings Bank, 109 Main St., Gloucester.

Scalli and other committee members hope local residents will get involved both through contributions and by reviewing today's list of names.

The committee hopes to unveil the memorial sometime this summer.

"This is the prefect year for this to happen," said Scalli. "The movie 'The Perfect Storm' is being released at the end of June and it's the 75th anniversary of the fishermen's statue."

Lafata agreed the timing is finally right for a memorial that has been long overdue.

"The fishermen's statue has never been complete without those names," he said. "This brings Gloucester's fishing heritage right up front and shows the world we are a famous fishing port -- and it also shows how we got there."