St. Joseph Altar

For longer than I can remember, every time a storm was on its way, my mom tossed out a piece of “blessed bread” and said a prayer to St. Joseph for protection.

(St. Joseph is the patron of those in need, whether it be workers, travelers, the persecuted, poor, aged, and dying. His feast day is March 19.)

The other night at dinner, Mom pointed out that her supply of blessed bread is dwindling and now that her sister (Auntie M.) has passed, she probably won’t be able to replenish it.

Auntie M., you see, always attended the St. Joseph Altars held along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and she always sent Mom a supply of blessed bread and cookies to stash in the freezer for stormy days.

It dawned on me that she was right. Here in the Midwest, I’ve never heard of anyone holding a St. Joseph Altar. I lived in Texas for several years; same story.

Holding a St. Joseph Altar is a Sicilian tradition (yes, I’m half Sicilian!). It started many years ago when a drought took hold of Sicily, the people prayed to St. Joseph, and the famine ceased. In thanksgiving, they prepared a table with a variety of food they’d harvested, and gave that food to the poor.

Immigrants to this country brought the custom with them, embellishing it and setting up elaborate tables filled with breads, cookies, and pastries baked in shapes like chalices. Custom dictated that no expense be incurred in setting up the altar; consequently, the “hosts” had to beg for contributions, similar to what the Sicilian people did.

I attended one of these Altars as a youngster and found it fascinating. Children portray members of the Holy Family, going door to door before reaching the site of the Altar; huge pots of spaghetti and other foods are served to the public; Fava (“lucky”) beans and a piece of blessed bread are sent home with those who attend; everything (money, food, whatever) is distributed to the poor afterward.

Hosting a St. Joseph Altar involves an entire family, and I just can’t see Mom undertaking such a task at this stage of her life. So I guess we’ll have to continue the “begging” tradition and rely on the rest of my family to send some goodies this way — hint, hint!

15 thoughts on “St. Joseph Altar

  1. Deb,
    What a wonderul,rich story you have told here. I love all the details. Traditions from the past really do root us in the present and can be a source of comfort. I had no idea you were part Sicilian. My maternal grandfather came from Naples and I love the traditions he brought with him. This evoked so many wonderful memories of growing up with Italian grandparents. Thanks for trip down memory lane and for enlightening me on a special tradition. “Quanda Bella”!

    • On my mom’s side, the Sicilian is 100% pure — both her parents came over as little children. She, unfortunately, never learned the language (though she understands a few phrases). I guess they were too busy acclimating to this new country. I never learned it either, though with four years of Latin under my belt, I can come pretty close on most words! You certainly got more of “the look” than I did, thanks to my Irish father!!

  2. My American -born Italian maternal grandmother insisted that English be spoken when she married by grandfather. He often reverted to Italian (when it was convenient). He would start telling a story in English ,only to finish it in Italian when the plot thickened and he became increasingly more excited over it! My mother regrets not being able to speak Italian but understands a fair amount. It’s funny how all of us identified more with the Italian side. My dad was English and I guess that wasn’t quite as exciting or colorful. On the other hand, you have all that feisty Irish blood defining you 🙂
    We’re all just one big “melting pot” but it is interesting to talk about the ethnic roots that guide us.

    • As kids, we sometimes “played Mafia,” but the adults quickly put a stop to that! Do you talk with your hands, too? Some of my relatives couldn’t say a word if their hands were tied behind their backs! I think it was inevitable I’d become a story-teller, with my heritage, ha!

    • How funny! That’s one trait that’s bred so strongly, it probably never will go away. But how can anybody expect us to tell stories without gesturing?!

  3. So much of this tradition reminds me that we’re supposed to look out for each other. This is the best of the original Catholic tradition as I understand it – that if anyone goes to bed hungry, we all suffer. I appreciate the reminder of this common humanity. Thanks.

    • You’re so right, Lynne. We’re taught that we can never “out-give” God, who gives so much to us. While some find it hard to “pay it forward,” we all can do a better job of giving back!

  4. Debbie – this is fascinating – I love the info. Who is the St. of Lost Causes? Do you think it would work if I threw all my bread in the front yard and said a prayer to St. J?

    • The patron saint of lost causes is St. Jude. When everything else is closed and despair is about to set in, he’s the one to call on! Be careful what you ask for because he does work miracles! I don’t think the bread would help you, but the birds might appreciate it!

  5. This was an interesting bit of information. I’m not Catholic, so I’m not at all familiar with the saints. I had never heard about the bread and St. Joseph, so this was a good read. (I love it when I’m entertained AND I learn something!)

    • Glad to be of help — as a cradle Catholic, I knew most of this stuff, but I wanted to challenge myself to present it in an interesting, informative way. Thanks for letting me know I succeeded!

  6. Pingback: Saint Joseph Day, Poultry Day, Chocolate Caramel Day

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