Intricately designed floral presentations, bowls overflowing with fruit, freshly baked breads and mounds of famous fig cookies will be just some of the features ornately displayed this month as three local Catholic churches are in final preparations for their church’s annual St. Joseph Altar.
The St. Joseph Altar is believed to have originated in Sicily during the Middle Ages. As the legend goes, a long drought and famine caused many Sicilians to die from starvation. People prayed to their patron saint, Joseph, for relief from the famine. When rain came, the people rejoiced and prepared a table with an assortment of foods they harvested.
The tradition began to take local roots in the late 1800s when Sicilian immigrants settled in New Orleans. The altars flourished among the prolific celebrations of Louisiana.
For believers, the annual altar is a way to express gratitude for any sort of fortune in their lives. Because the altars thank St. Joseph for relieving hunger, offerings of food are essential. For example, whole baked fish on the altar represents the Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves, while wine recalls the wedding feast at Cana. The fava bean, which was the only crop that survived the drought, is called the lucky bean, and fresh produces recalls the bountiful harvest that concluded the famine.
The traditional St. Joseph Altar is constructed in the shape of the cross, with three levels honoring the Holy Trinity. A statue or picture of Joseph – often seen holding baby Jesus – is displayed at the altar, and most often the colors of white, green, and red – the colors of the Italian flag – are used in decorating the altar.
“St. Joseph’s Altar is a thanksgiving offered by our parish community in honor of Saint Joseph for the blessings of the previous year,” Father Anthony Odiong of St. Anthony of Padua said. “It is also a plea and a prayer for his protection and favor for the upcoming year in honor of the saint who did not only protect Sicily, but the man-God from infancy to manhood.”
St. Charles Borromeo, St. Anthony of Padua, and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church are among the local Catholic churches hosting an altar this year.
At St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Destrehan, the altar will be blessed after the 8:15 a.m. mass on March 18 and will be available for viewing in the Borromeo Room from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. that day and again on March 19 from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The altar is hosted by St. Joseph’s Altar Society members. Cookies, candles, blessed salt, and bread will be available for a donation. The church is located at 13396 River Road in Destrehan.
In Luling, St. Anthony of Padua’s altar will be blessed on March 18 at 5p.m. and open from 5 to 8 p.m. that night. A meal will be available on March 18 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The altar will also be open for viewing on March 19 from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a meal served starting at noon. On March 20 the altar will be open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cookies will be available for purchase. The altar will be set up in room 8 of St. Anthony’s C.A. Building, located at 234 Angus Drive in Luling.
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in Hahnville will bless its altar on March 18 at 10 a.m. The blessing will be followed by Tupa Tupa, a Pilgrimage play, and light refreshments. The altar will be open until 3 p.m. for visitors on March 18. On March 19 the altar may be viewed in between Masses and until 4 p.m. Memorial candles will be available for $3, and cookies, blessed candles and oils, and holy water will be available for a donation. The church is located at 1 Rectory Lane in Hahnville.
Janel Pizzolato, who organizes the altar at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, said parishioners at the church have been planning for the event since January.
“Everyone is so excited about it,” she said. “I have so many people making cookies and different things to support the altar.”
Pizzolato noted that something significantly different about this year is that the church has had to rely on parishioners to make cookies in their homes since the church’s facilities were damaged in Hurricane Ida.
“They are very dedicated and talented individuals,” she said, adding that for the first time this year the church hosted workshops for participants to learn how to make decorative dough breads and cakes.