About 700 locals gathered at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denham Springs on Saturday to view the elaborate altar of St. Joseph, witness the ritual feeding of the saints and share a communal meal that honors and helps to preserve traditions brought to the United States by Sicilian immigrants over a century ago.
At the center of the event that honors Saint Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is the altar laden with foodstuffs, statues of Saint Joseph and Jesus, flowers, candles, and colorful decorations. On the altar are baked loaves representing the life of Joseph, the carpenter. Loaves in the shape of ladders, hammers, saws and other tools reminiscent of Saint Joseph are prominently displayed on the altar. Crosses and other religious symbols, also formed with bread, are also part of the altar.
A wide variety of food items including a range of vegetables and fruit, fish, crayfish, hundreds of biscuits, cakes and baked breads are also an integral part of the tiered display which is a typical altar of St. Joseph.
The emphasis on food recalls why altars are built each year for the veneration of Saint Joseph, whose feast day is March 19.
The custom of building a Saint Joseph altar began in Sicily at the time of a great famine. Hungry people prayed for the intersession of their patron saint, Joseph, and when the rains finally came and the drought ended, grateful people began to build altars in thanksgiving for the end of the famine. .
The custom of building the altars was introduced to Louisiana in the late 1800s when many Sicilian residents arrived in New Orleans and then dispersed throughout Louisiana. Traditional altars are erected in communities with a significant number of residents who are descended from the original Sicilian immigrants
The veneration of St. Joseph and the altar of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church was the work of the Friends of St. Joseph organization. Group members began cooking and baking for the event weeks before the altar was finally assembled and decorated and the crowds were welcomed into the church hall for the feast.
The group began performing the altar 26 years ago and have continued the tradition ever since. This year’s altar was the first to be fully shared by the community in two years. In 2020 the celebration was changed due to the threats of the coronavirus and last year it was canceled as the threat of the virus continued.
Rosie Moak and Jeremy Patt shared the leadership role as coordinators of the celebration and the construction of the altar. Moak said of the preparations, “Planning the altar and doing all the cooking is a labor of love for the volunteers who start working at the church hall weeks before the day the altar is blessed and open to the public. . We have about 75 volunteers who come together to bake the thousands and thousands of cookies that we distribute and to cook the dishes that we serve to all the visitors who come,” she said.
She added that on some days up to 50 volunteers were in the room preparing the altar.
The stage on which the altar is created was originally designed by the late Henry Pulizzano and Jay Labello. “There is so much tradition associated with the Altar of St. Joseph and those of us who work each year to keep the tradition alive know how much it is valued. We are doing this to honor Saint Joseph and to preserve something very special for so many people,” she said.
Ann Watson, Jackie Porta, Louis Landry, Mary Toler and Moak helped decorate the altar, a tedious task that takes hours. A side altar with a rosary made of cupcakes was designed by Francis King and Betty Schoettle. The theme of the rosary was the joy of freedom in the United States.
Part of the ritual involving an altar of St. Joseph is the “Saints’ Meal”. This year’s altar roles were Michael Pulizzano, as St. Joseph, Michael Pulizzano, Jr., as the boy Jesus, and Adrianna Fennell as Mary. When the show begins, the three knock three times at the foot of the altar where they are greeted by 93-year-old Mary Guzzardo, one of the founders of the altar tradition. At first, the three saints are told that there is no room in the inn, but after three requests, Guzzardo informs them that only a stable is available. The three are then admitted to the altar where they are served eight plates of food, each with a particular symbolism.
Once the three are served, they leave the room and the doors are opened to the public. There is no meat on the altar and meat is not part of the meal. Everyone who came for dinner received a generous helping of spaghetti, a boiled egg, and casserole selections prepared by volunteers.
Everyone who came to the party, which is free, received a bag of Italian cookies.
Moak said that all food on the altar and food that is shared with all who come is donated. “The Altar of St. Joseph is a celebration of thanksgiving for all good things, especially food, which we enjoy in this country. The altar is a reminder that we should be grateful for all the blessings we receive,” Moak said.
The Reverend Matthew Graham, pastor of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, blessed the altar on Friday and a mass was held in honor of Saint Joseph.
At the end of the celebration, Moak said, leftover food was delivered to local agencies that serve those in need. “Nothing is lost, it was a day of sharing and at the end of the day, all of us who put so much effort into celebrating this great tradition were rewarded knowing that so many people came and enjoyed to be a part of something so special for so much,” she said.