By Katherine Hoey and Caitlyn McDuffee
The engines of 300 motorcycles revved as they lined up outside Shrine of Our Lady of the Island, a Catholic church in Manorville, awaiting the arrival of the priest and his holy water. In the early afternoon of Palm Sunday, the crowd geared up for the Blessing of the Bikes, an annual event that dates back to 1999.
Men and women were decked out in leather and black and adorned in tattoos and chunky silver jewelry, an outfit representative of motorcyclist culture.
Riders of Fire, a motorcycle club for volunteer fireman, hosted the event where members received a blessing from the priest, along with their bikes which were consecrated with holy water. This event started out as a way to pray for motorcyclists and highlight the importance of safety on the road. It has now transcended to include fundraising for charities that support fire departments across long island.
“We bless the bikes because people feel the need to have their bikes blessed and themselves,” assistant Pastor of Rushing Wind Biker Church, Gerry Waldron said. “We want them to pray for the machines but we also believe we should pray for the people as well”.
The event takes place across different cities in the U.S during the month of April, when the weather gets warmer and motorcycle season begins. Motorbikes are growing in popularity in the U.S. In 2018, the percent of households that had at least one motorcycle jumped to 8 percent from 6.94 in 2014, the Motorcycle Industry Council reported in a study released Jan 23 2019.
Christianity and motorcycling have also intersected in the past. Cyclefish, an online biker and motorcycle network, lists at least sixteen religious-associated motorcycle clubs across the U.S., like the Christian Motorcyclists Association, founded in Arkansas.
“What started in 1975 as one man on a motorcycle with a willingness to obey God has grown into a worldwide ministry with thousands of members and chapters across the U.S and the world,” the association’s website reads.
“The biker gets the reputation as ‘bad-boy outlaw’ type and don’t get me wrong there are some,” Carmine DiGirolamo, who attended the event, said.
Riders of Fires holds strong philanthropic values. Eighty percent of its rides held for charity. Every summer, the group hosts “Christmas in June” where hundreds of motorcyclists deliver toys to special needs kids in foster care at SCO family services in SeaCliff.
“We channel a lot of our energy to good,” John Moreira, president of Riders of Fire, said. “Our great dedication to our community and others brings us together because we enjoy motorcycles. It has nothing to do with being a tough guy, a lot of us are tough guys because you need that demeanor just to do what we do”.
Riders get their bikes blessed because they’re either religious or for good luck because bikers tend to be superstitious, Morieria said.
In 2014, there were 4,750 motorcycle crashes, 142 which were fatal, according to the New York State Department of Health.
“As we say in biking, you can never have too many guardian angels,” Ken Veale, owner of The Port Jefferson Bike Doctor, said. The avid Harley-rider has owned the motorcycle-clothing store for 25 years.
“I always suggest to people that a prayer here or there is not going to hurt ya,” Veale said.
Majority of fatal crashes, 95 percent, occur in Suffolk County, according to the American Automobile Association.
“Generally motorcyclists get hit by cars more because drivers can’t see them,” Joe Burns, retired New York City Police Department captain, said. “As long as the rider respects the law there’s really no enforcement issues. It’s when they drive recklessly its a problem”.
The next Blessing of the Bikes will be hosted at the American Legion in Elmont on Saturday, April 27th.