Catholic faithful create annual feast for patron saint

All for St. Joseph

When Louisiana’s Italians welcome visitors to their St. Joseph’s Altars in honor of the foster father of Jesus, they continue a custom believed to have begun in 12th-century Sicily when people turned to St. Joseph during a drought and famine.

“After appealing to God and Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, the rains came to save the people of Sicily,” according to information from volunteers at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Plaquemine. “In thanksgiving the people prepared a table or altar and shared the fruits of their labor. Today St. Joseph’s Altars are prepared to fulfill a promise, give thanks for the health or protection of a loved one, and share with others less fortunate than us.”

St. Joseph, the patron saint of Italy and Baton Rouge, is honored annually on or near his feast day, which is actually Wednesday, March 19, for the Roman Catholic Church. But, for convenience, many of south Louisiana’s Italians through their church, school or organizations will begin celebrating this weekend and continue through March 23.

Sicilian immigrants who arrived in Louisiana during the last decades of the 1800s brought the altar tradition to Louisiana. Many volunteers help to make cookies and the dishes used on the altars and others donate to the altars for intentions or in thanksgiving. Because this is a Lenten celebration, there is no meat on the altar.

“The closeness and unity of working with so many people for a common goal makes it all worthwhile,” said Paula Adams, who volunteers at the Plaquemine church. “It is a reminder that we can help each other in time of need.”

Sandra Scalise Juneau, a culinary consultant from Madisonville who specializes in Siclian pastry art of the St. Joseph’s Altar tradition, explained how the altars are set up in tiers and decorated with “cuccidatas,” large decorative pastries featuring lacy cutwork designs and made with fig paste filling and a short pastry; specialty Italian breads, made in various religious shapes, including the staff, sandals and carpenter’s tools of St. Joseph; a large fish symbolic of Christ; cakes and cookies; fresh vegetables and fruits; stuffed vegetables; wine; and palms and other greenery.

They also include statues and pictures of St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

Those who help with the St. Joseph’s Altars year after year say the food on an altar is to be shared, never thrown away and never stored to be used the next year.

While the practice of hosting altars in private homes has diminished in recent years, the St. Joseph’s Altar tradition continues with altars at Catholic churches, Knights of Columbus halls and other public locations. For example, the Grandsons of Italy have hosted public altars at various churches in Baton Rouge for 36 years. This year it is at Sacred Heart Church.