Saint Joseph’ s Altar

Saint Joseph Altars

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(Photography and text by Kerri McCafferty. Pelican Publishing Company)

This beautiful book is a feast for the eyes. The author, an accomplished photographer, presents her subject primarily in a delicious array of colorful photos of many different Saint Joseph Altars on display in and around the city of New Orleans. For me, a native of that city, the book is also a feast for the memory. I grew up in Saint Joseph Parish, and the pictures of that beautiful church, the largest in the south, recall countless good memories of my childhood in the old neighborhood. My family, although not of Italian heritage, ran a bakery and supplied many cakes and Italian loaves to grace the “altars” of friends around the city.

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The origin of the Saint Joseph Altar (or Table of Saint Joseph) is somewhat mysterious and has several versions. Sicilian farmers suffered from a terrible and long-lasting drought during the Middle Ages; many were starving and dying. They sent countless prayers and promises to their beloved San Giuseppe, and when the rains came and the crops grew again, the farmers showed their gratitude for his beneficence by offering the fruits of their labors to their less fortunate neighbors.This is the most common version of the beginning of the practice. Some scholars believe that the custom was brought to Sicily with the Albanian Abreshe, Catholics who took refuge on the island when the Muslims moved into their country on their western march. It is a fact that many residents of Sicilian heritage who live in Louisiana were actually of Albanian Abreshe ancestry.

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Whatever the true origin, the custom exists in several American cities where there is a substantial Sicilian population. Of course, New Orleans seems to have a true talent for celebrating, more than most cities, even during Lent. After the huge annual craziness of Mardi Gras, one would think that the city would calm down during Lent, but, no — Saint Patrick has his parades on March 17, and Saint Joseph has his processions and parades, and altars, on Saint Joseph Day.

Sizes and Shapes

The shape of the altar is traditional: there must be three levels, one for each Person of the Trinity. On the topmost level, in the center spot, there is usually a large statue of Saint Joseph holding the Christ Child. There must be extensions out to each side and one in the middle so that the altar resembles a cross. Each level is draped in white cloth and decorated with flowers, fruits, holy pictures, crucifixes, and statues, and candles. The size is up to the person or group holding the altar. It can be small enough to fit in one’s living room or big enough to fill up a school gym. I have seen a huge altar on the steps and portico of Saint Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue.

The Food — Ah The Food!

Of foremost importance on the altar is the food! Paging through this gorgeous book, you definitely get the idea that the food is the crucial item on everyone’s altar. There must be no meat — after all, Saint Joseph Day usually occurs during Lent. There is fish as well as other local seafood. Wines, pasta dishes, meatless “red gravy” (the local term for tomato sauce), hundreds of cakes, Italian cookies of different varieties, and bread, bread, and more bread fill up every available square inch on the tables. Loaves of bread are made in the shape of the tools of the holy carpenter, his shoes and his walking staff. There is a dish of “lucky” beans, the fava beans that finally ended the famine, for each visitor to take home. Keep your lucky bean in your home and you will never go hungry! There is usually a dish for contributions and one for written petitions to Saint Joseph. The variety and amount depend on the workers and their individual budgets.

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Visitors are allowed to partake at some altars, but traditionally, all the food is given to the poor, or sent to orphanages or homes for the elderly. One amusing story concerns an old gent residing in the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. His offering to Saint Joseph was a few flowers in an empty beer can. When the local priest inquired of this unusual offering, the gent replied, “The Sisters don’t give us enough beer.” Later that day the priest was being driven to another assignment and began chuckling to himself over this incident. When his driver inquired as to the cause of his amusement, the priest related the story. Good Saint Joseph answered the old gentleman’s prayer because the driver happened to own a brewery and promised to supply the good sisters with more of his product for their charges!

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Although the text is very basic, the real feast of this book is the wonderful photography. You are amazed at monstrances made of bread, fig cookie chalices, cakes that look like newborn lambs, and the most amazing bread and pastry shapes, from Saint Joseph’s sandals to pignolatti, fried dough pieces held together with a sticky syrup and shaped to resemble the pine cones that the Baby Jesus played with as a Little One.

The author provides us with the nice bonus of a wonderful collection of Italian recipes, some by famous chefs, like Emeril Lagasse’s canoli. The most unusual of the recipes is the Saint Lucy’s Eye Pie, really a large fig cake with two pieces of pastry in the center resembling eyes.

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For a glimpse at a true Catholic ethnic tradition, Saint Joseph Altars is a book that you will want to show your friends and read again and again yourself.