Debi Grimes, who is of Cajun ancestry, knew about the Sicilian tradition of St. Joseph’s Altars because she grew up in West Baton Rouge Parish surrounded by Italian neighbors. However, she said, “I did not know the amount of work women have done for generation after generation” to keep the custom going until she got involved in preparing an altar for Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center, where she works.
“They start working (on food for St. Joseph’s Altars) in January, and women in their 90s still stand over pots to spin sugar,” she marveled.
The altars are traditionally set up for St. Joseph’s Day, which is March 19 for the Roman Catholic Church.
Sicilian immigrants brought the centries-old custom of St. Joseph’s Altars to south Louisiana as a visible means of honoring St. Joseph when they received favors for which they’d asked his help and intercession.
“The intention of the altar at the prayer center is for the sick and dying,” Grimes said. “I thought it would be a neat community event to do.”
This is the third year volunteers will erect a St. Joseph’s Altar at the prayer center, located at 17560 George O’Neal Road, she said. The altar will be open to the public from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 18. “The first year we fed 350 people; last year, 850; and this year we’re expecting more than 1,000.”
Dozens of volunteers worked in shifts on March 6 and 7 in the large kitchen of the center’s convent to make thousands of Italian Fig Cookies, Cherry Cookies, Snowball Cookies and Italian Chocolate Cookies. Other people were preparing the cakes, breads, red sauce and casseroles that are placed on the altar and served to those who come to visit the altar.
“People work tirelessly to put it on,” Grimes said. “We have gotten younger people involved hoping to keep the tradition going. It’s an honor to serve people. It’s a very humbling thing to do. We’ve learned so much.”
Some of the volunteers are of Sicilian descent, others have married into Sicilian families, but most are of other ethnic backgrounds and are just interested in learning more about the altar tradition.
The Italian Chocolate Cookies recipe they use originally came from Mary Mannino, whose family was from Sicily. She was the grandmother of volunteer Deborah Mannino’s husband. Deborah said she learned to cook Italian foods “from people who are now in their 70s and 80s” after her marriage 30 years ago into the Mannino family.
“We are trying to get younger people involved to teach them about the altar and traditions,” Deborah Mannino said. She worries when the 70- and 80-year-olds aren’t here anymore, the altar tradition will die out.
Volunteer Joni Russo, armed with potholders, stood guard between two wall ovens and a large commercial oven. Her job: keep an eye on baking cookies and take them out at the proper time.
When Grimes started the St. Joseph Altar, “she called me and said she need help,” Russo, of New Roads, said. “She wanted to know if I knew anyone who made Italian Fig Cookies. The only person I knew was my uncle Clarence Thibodeaux. I never made them. I just ate them. I called him as my source, and he passed on the recipe.”
Thibodeaux got the original recipe from an Italian family and has been making the cookies since Russo and her two sisters, Jeralyn Ewing, of St. Francisville, and Lori Pourciau, were youngsters. This is the second year the three sisters have joined the volunteers helping with the St. Joseph’s Altar at the prayer center. Russo prepares the fig filling for the cookies. The sisters’ uncle made the dough for the fig cookies last year, but was unable to help out this year, so one of his sons, Mark Thibodeaux, and Russo’s husband, Vincent Russo, made the dough.
“You have to have a man to handle the dough,” which is worked by hand. “It’s so heavy,” Pourciau explained.
Grimes said many people help with the costs associated with preparing the altar, including Deborah Mannino and Helen Tabary who shop for the groceries. Cakes are ordered from a New Orleans bakery while breads are made by Whole Foods Market in Baton Rouge.
“It’s incredible to me the amount of food people are bringing to us and restaurants are donating,” Grimes said. “Some women from Immaculate Conception Church in Denham Springs come to help us and they bring food for our altar. People in New Orleans make a special spinach to put on our altar. Carolyn Green makes 25 gallons of red sauce and she won’t take a penny for it. A lady in Denham Springs makes a rosary cake out of fondant. It fits on a 72-inch round table. Everything on the altar is donated to the poor.”
She also appreciates those who help bake the cookies.
Sister Demetria Castro, the cook and housekeeper at the convent at Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center carefully arranged some 600 just-baked Italian Fig Cookies on a large table. The native of Mexico was among 18 volunteers helping to make cookies on the morning of March 6.
Volunteer Linda Rispone didn’t measure as she mixed confectioners’ sugar with milk and cherry juice to make frosting for Cherry Cookies. She also made the frosting last year and learned “it needs to be thick.”
Jill Soileau, who worked the day’s second shift, said, “We volunteer for the (prayer center) ministry. We joyfully accepted the invitation to make cookies for the St. Joseph’s Altar.”
Other volunteers included Rose Saia Piper, who is “100 percent Italian,” and Melinda LeBlanc, who volunteered to make cookies because “I always wanted to be part of the altar.”
Pam Pullen said she’s learned there is “a certain technique for rolling” the cherry and chocolate cookies into balls.
Volunteer Lola Boekhout explained, “They have to be a little smaller than a nickel.” Pullen added, “They have to be the same size so they bake uniformly.”
Shirley Charbonnet said, “We were told not to have any cracks on the surface because the cookies are glazed. Here’s a woman who doesn’t cook telling you how to make them.”
But, she was learning and enjoying herself, and such enthusiasm is what Grimes and Deborah Mannino said they hoped would happen so the St. Josephh’s Altar tradition will be preserved.
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