Mounds of beloved fig cookies and freshly baked breads will be just some of the culinary creations ornately displayed this month when local Catholic parishioners host 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. After paying honor to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
The act of making an altar fulfills a promise made to St. Joseph for an answered prayer, according to the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ website. 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 the baby Jesus stands at the center of the highest tier with flowers surrounding him. Most often the colors of red, white and green (the colors of the Italian flag) are displayed.
Most altars have a basket where visitors can place written petitions.
Each food on the altar has some traditional significance. For example, hard-boiled eggs are embedded in baked bread to symbolize the rebirth of spring and the coming of Easter, while breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of the carpenter. Wine recalls the wedding feast at Cana, and the fava bean – which was the only crop that survived the drought – is called the lucky bean.
The St. Joseph Altar 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.
“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.”
St. Charles Borromeo and St. Anthony of Padua are among the local Catholic churches hosting an altar this year.
At St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Destrehan, the annual altar is presented by the St. Joseph Altar Society and will be blessed after the 8:15 a.m. mass on March 19. It will be available for viewing in the Borromeo Room from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cookies will be available and donations are accepted.
In Luling, St. Anthony of Padua’s altar will be available on March 19 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with meals served from 11:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. The altar will also be opened on March 20 from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., with meals served beginning at 11:30 a.m. Cookies will be available.