By Sandra Scalise Juneau
The tradition of St. Joseph Altars has a complex and enduring history. What began in Sicily as a prayer for relief from famine during the late Middle Ages has become a multicultural celebration of abundance.
Even before 1870, when Pope Paul IX declared St. Joseph patron of the universal Catholic Church, celebrating March 19 as the Feast of St. Joseph was manifested in Sicily with regional variances. From Tavola di San Giuseppe—family feasts held in private homes—to elaborate public piazza displays, and from prayerful processions to spectacular parades including marching bands, each Festa di San Giuseppe was celebrated with individual interpretation.
Honoring the trilogy of Gesù, Maria, e San Giuseppe (Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph), St. Joseph Altars have several unifying factors. These include displaying foods in three tiers, or “steps”; centering an image of St. Joseph; dressing tables with elegant, hand-stitched white linens; embellishing with fresh lemons and oranges and seasonal greens; and incorporating bundles of wild anise and stalks of carduni. The communal acts of baking specialty breads, of preparing delectable dishes from springtime’s bounty from both earth and sea, and of creating luscious, hand-crafted confections are in celebration of Abbondanza, the abundance of blessings for sharing, in imitation of St. Joseph’s hospitality.
Because this cultural folk art is expressed through individual artistry, no two St. Joseph Altars are ever quite alike. Adornments on the altar, including decorative breads and ornate cuccidati—traditional fig cakes representing ancient Christian symbols—reveal the unique hands that made them. In the Sicilian town of Salemi, St. Joseph Altars are noted for elaborate displays of breads covering doorways and walls on storefronts as well as on home altars, all nonedible depictions of flowers, animals, and tools to signify St. Joseph’s humble workshop. About thirty miles away in Poggioreale, St. Joseph Altars traditionally focus on intricately carved cuccidati designs called squartucciati, which means “lacemaking.” Each town has its own approach to celebrating St. Joseph’s feast day. In traditions brought from Poggioreale, the home village of my maternal grandmother, even today, all of the foods displayed on the altar, after being blessed in a special ceremony, are shared in a communal feast. Sicilians considered these blessed foods sacred and did not allow any to be wasted. Leftover food scraps are either fed to cattle, or buried to replenish the earth.
When Sicilian immigrants arrived in Louisiana during the late nineteenth century, the continuity of their faith traditions, especially St. Joseph Altars, provided them comfort. Well into the mid-twentieth century those traditions remained unchanged. While most Sicilian immigrants never identified with being “Italian” but instead referred to themselves from the cultural region of their ancestors (Abreshe, Cefalutani, Trapanesi, etc.), a notable change occurred during the 1960s. At that point, a swell of Italian-American pride resulted in the emergence of St. Joseph Altars dressed in the colors of the Italian flag. Today, in New Orleans and around Louisiana, you will find St. Joseph Altars draped in red, white, and green bunting, often with matching bouquets of flowers.
Now a vital part of Louisiana’s multicultural mélange, St. Joseph Altars reflect the artistry of members of various ethnic groups celebrating St. Joseph’s feast day. Among Louisiana’s Vietnamese community, St. Joseph’s Day is honored with a sacred procession, with participants carrying the statue of St. Joseph while reciting prayers in the ancestral Asian language. The St. Joseph Altars at Xavier University of Louisiana are dressed with symbolic African tribal Kente cloth, embellished with handmade woven baskets. According to Dr. Kim Marie Vaz-Deville, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of education at Xavier, “The symbols of the altar stand as visual reminders to everyone to try to incorporate the values St. Joseph stood for into their own lives. In addition to the usual altar items, we add objects that are specific to Xavier and to Black New Orleans culture. The Office of Campus Ministry provides Kente cloth, African baskets, and a Ghanaian royal stool. The art department adds beaded patches made through its Mardi Gras Indian arts program.” In the fishing village of Lacombe, Louisiana, home to descendants of the Choctaw, Spanish, French, and African Creole families, St. Joseph Altars are dressed with handwoven fishing nets and breads in shapes of alligators and crawfish.
The St. Joseph Altar tradition has always been about sharing. As expressed by Cynthia Lamarque Valadez, director of the St. Joseph Altar at St. Louis Cathedral Parish in New Orleans, “The St. Joseph Altar for our parish is located in the heart of the Vieux Carré at the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Each year, over two thousand guests visit our St. Joseph Altar, and each year we feed more and more of the truly needy, especially the homeless, many of whom are just young kids living on the streets. In the tradition of St. Joseph Altar giving, not only do we provide them with a delicious meal served in a clean and safe environment, but we also nourish them with resources for bringing their lives back to within the folds of sanctuary.”
Unexpectedly, with the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, public displays of St. Joseph Altars were abruptly cancelled. Since so many of the traditional biscotti had already been prepared and packaged, church organizations and individuals delivered boxes of confections to health-care workers and first responders in those overwhelming early days of the pandemic.
As we approach St. Joseph’s Day this March 19, in the year Pope Francis has declared “The Year of St. Joseph,” we will again forgo our public celebrations in the saint’s honor while dealing with the effects of this lingering pandemic. But notably, this year as last, we are finding other ways to celebrate—with small altars of devotion to St. Joseph in homes and churches, with family dinners of traditional foods, and even with window displays of St. Joseph Altars. Last year, Angelo Brocato’s Sicilian confectionary on Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans displayed a stunning St. Joseph Altar in its windows.
With St. Joseph Altars well established across the United States in small communities and major cities, among multi-ethnic groups, families of Sicilian heritage, and Louisiana’s émigrés, it is most encouraging to know that despite famine, wars, hurricanes, and pandemics, though rituals may change, this sacred tradition of honoring the Feast of St. Joseph will continue, embraced by younger generations with a new spirit of devotion.
A native New Orleanian of Sicilian heritage, Sandra Scalise Juneau has created cultural exhibits for public display at the Hallmark Card Company in New York, the Louisiana World’s Fair, and the Louisiana Folklife Festival. St. Joseph Altars she designed remain on permanent exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans. She lives in Madisonville, Louisiana.
Every year on March 19, Roman Catholic churches and households in and around New Orleans celebrate St. Joseph’s Day. As centerpieces of these celebrations, the elaborate tiered displays of foods, prayers, and offerings known as St. Joseph Altars represent a centuries-old tradition established in south Louisiana by immigrants from Sicily. In Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars, Sandra Scalise Juneau expertly documents the stories, recipes, and religious symbolism of this rich tradition passed down through multiple generations. While the altars have adapted over time to local ingredients and tastes, most of the customary dishes still follow cooking and baking methods that remain relatively unchanged from over a century ago.