Over the course of the city’s rich history, New Orleans’ position at the mouth of the Mississippi River has made it one of the largest immigration ports in the country. As a result, there are countless Old World traditions carried on today that are part of the fabric of the city—not the least of which are the bountiful tri-level St. Joseph’s altars brimming with multi-shaped baked goods, pastas, seafood, fruits, candles, and more. The altars, which observe the Catholic feast day of St. Joseph on March 19, arrived during the 1880s when impoverished Sicilians settled in the Crescent City.
The custom began centuries ago as a way for Sicilians to express thanks to St. Joseph for saving them from famine. As the story goes, Sicily, located at the toe of Italy’s boot, suffered a severe drought during the Middle Ages, and the people prayed to St. Joseph for rain. When the rain came and the crops flourished, they prepared offerings in thanksgiving to him by erecting a three-tiered altar representing the Holy Trinity and adorning it with flowers and food from the harvest.
Sicilians who settled in New Orleans, and now many of Italian heritage, continued the tradition, and while it is less common today to find altars in private homes, several churches, restaurants, and other organizations throughout the area honor St. Joseph with elaborate altars.
Today’s altars are constructed for special petitions to St. Joseph, such as the safe return of a loved one from war or the healing of a sick relative. Slips of paper for parishioners or the general public to write their petitions on are often offered nearby. The entire structure is draped in white, and a statue or photo of St. Joseph, typically holding an infant Jesus, sits in the center of the top tier. The other two tiers are decorated with flowers, candles, photos of loved ones who are ill or have passed—and, of course, the food.
Each altar features traditional braided bread shaped in the form of a cross, wreath, and St. Joseph’s staff, as well as other loaves shaped like saws, hammers, and ladders. There’s also the Easter bread eaten throughout Lent, pupa cu l’ova, a sweet, round loaf studded with dyed hard-boiled eggs. In addition to the decorative breads, the altar is laden with food, and meat is noticeably absent due to St. Joseph’s Day falling during Lent. Instead, worshippers prepare dishes of seafood, pasta, and vegetables, including baked red snapper, fried eggplant with red gravy, stuffed artichokes, and Pasta Milanese sprinkled with mudrica, breadcrumbs resembling the sawdust of St. Joseph the carpenter.
Salvadore Serio, curator of the American Italian Research Library at the Jefferson Parish Library in Metairie, says that preparations for St. Joseph altars begin months in advance, and all of the ingredients and food must be donated. Local bakeries allow St. Joseph’s Day celebrants to use their kitchens to prepare the breads, cakes, and cookies.
The evening before the feast, a priest blesses the altar in a special ceremony. Part of the celebration is a skit of the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph—knocking on three doors before finding the altar. The children portraying the members of the Holy Family are then invited in to taste a bite of each of the foods on the altar. It is only then that guests may partake in the feast. Any food that is leftover is given to the poor, and any monetary donations are given to charity.
It is also tradition for churches to give small gifts to visitors to St. Joseph altars. These usually include blessed bread or dried fava beans, which are called “lucky beans” because they are what prevented the Sicilian people from starving back when St. Joseph blessed them with rain.
St. Joseph altars are a magnificent sight to behold for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and the tradition highlights the cultural significance of Sicilians to New Orleans and how their descendants continue to keep this tradition alive for future generations.
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