Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Allie Norton and her husband, Coast Guardsman David Norton, dedicate their daughter Montgomery Grace Norton with water from the Coast Guard Cutter Greenbrier’s bell during the ceremony for five babies that have been born to local Coast Guardsmen in the last four months.
Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Allie Norton and her husband, Coast Guardsman David Norton, dedicate their daughter Montgomery Grace Norton with water from the Coast Guard Cutter Greenbrier’s bell during the ceremony for five babies that have been born to local Coast Guardsmen in the last four months.

Coast Guard station celebrates new lives with old navy tradition

Published 12:25am Sunday, May 26, 2013

NATCHEZ Every time the Coast Guard Cutter Greenbrier rings its bell, the sound will serve not only to alert those on the river, but also to call five small children to faith.

Saturday, five Coast Guardsmen and their families gathered on the Greenbrier in Natchez to have a baptismal ceremony in the bell of the boat for the children who had been born to the families stationed in Natchez this year.

The practice of baptizing children in the bell of the boat can be traced back to the British Royal Navy, when captains and officers would often bring their wives along with them on long journeys at sea, Master Chief Randy Merrick said.

On some of the longer journeys, babies would be born.

“The ships were considered to be sovereign territories (of their countries) wherever they went, so when they would baptize the children they would do it in the bell of the boat to symbolize their citizenship,” Merrick said.

In the old naval custom, the first child to be baptized in the bell of a ship would have their name inscribed in it, and when the boat was decommissioned the child would be given the bell. Merrick said that while the bell would remain with the Coast Guard after the boat is decommissioned, the names of the babies at Saturday’s ceremony were inscribed in the bell.

“Traditionally, (the sailors) also said that the spirit of the child stays with the boat wherever it goes, and that is why their name is inscribed on the bell,” Coast Guard District 8 Chaplain Commander Michael Hall said.

None of the children at the ceremony Saturday were actually born on the Greenbrier — it does tours of inland waterways, and Guardsmen’s spouses stay on land — but baptism in the bell was a tradition that the men on the Greenbrier didn’t want to pass up, Machinery Technician Justin Mears said.

“I had never heard of this tradition until a few months ago, after the first babies had been born,” Mears said. “One of the guys mentioned it, and we all got on board.”

And the Greenbrier crew’s enthusiasm to keep the tradition alive led to a unique situation — Hall said as far as he knows, this is the first time a Coast Guard vessel has had five babies present for a baptism in the bell at the same time.

The ceremony Saturday — while it took many of the forms of a baptism — did not use the formula of a baptism and should be considered a baby dedication, allowing for each family to participate in the ceremony but also arrange for a baptism in their respective faith traditions, Hall said.

As Sector Upper Mississippi River Chaplain Lt. Stephen Scott held each child, the parents dipped their hands into the water in the bell and poured it over their child, affirming aloud, “We dedicate this baby in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

But Hall also told the parents that the ceremony was not just the commitment of a baby into God’s hands, and part of the ceremony used the traditional baptismal language of godparents, committing the parents to renouncing evil, repenting and pursuing God.

“This dedication is as much a statement of the parents’ commitment to raise the child in faith as it is a dedication,” Hall said. “You as parents are committing to raise this child in a way that will enable them to make this decision for themselves.”

After the service, the families were all given a Bible and a certificate of dedication for the babies.

Those dedicating babies included David and Galen Smith, parents of David Guyton Smith; Justin and Kayla Mears, parents of Emerick Covie Mears; David and Allie Norton, parents of Montgomery Grace Norton; Wesley and Randi Wilson, parents of Harper Layne Wilson; and David and Alicia Martin, parents of Kinsley Marie Martin.