Churches, Locals Prepare St. Joseph Altars
by Mary Downer
Catholics nationwide are no strangers to honoring saints on their feast days; however, the St. Joseph altar is a tradition that is found mainly in New Orleans and surrounding areas.
St. Joseph altars began as a custom brought to New Orleans by Sicilian immigrants. Between 1850 and 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there were more Italians in New Orleans than any other U.S. city. By 1910, the population of New Orleans was nearly 80 percent Italian.
As legend goes, there was a great drought in Sicily. With no rain to nourish the crops, the fields were barren. The people began to pray to St. Joseph, their patron saint, to bring relief from the famine that was destroying the island. The skies opened up and the rain poured down on the crops, saving the people of Sicily. As the people rejoiced, they set up an altar to show their gratitude. Various foods made from grains and fish were placed upon the altar to honor St. Joseph for saving them. Food from the altar was later distributed to the poor and less fortunate. As these immigrants made their way to the U.S., they brought with them various traditions and religious beliefs.
Modern St. Joseph altars still look much like the traditional altars of Sicily. The feast day to honor St. Joseph is March 19, though altars are usually set up for a week.
Here’s where you can view a St. Joseph altar March 19:
Bishop Sam G. Jacobs’ Home, 430 E. First St., Thibodaux
Cannata’s Supermarket, 1977 Prospect Blvd., Houma
Cannata’s Supermarket, 610 Highway 90 East, Morgan City
Cannata’s Supermarket, 6307 W. Park Ave., Houma
Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church, 720 Talbot Ave., Thibodaux
Holy Rosary Catholic School, 12925 E. Main St., Larose
Holy Savior Catholic Church, 612 Main St., Lockport
Maria Immacolata Catholic Church, 246 Corporate Drive, Houma
St. Bridget Catholic Church, 100 Highway 311, Schriever
St. Mary’s Nativity Catholic Church, 3500 Highway 1, Raceland
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, 204 Madewood Drive, Thibodaux
Traditionally, the altar is in the shape of a cross, with three different levels representing the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph, often holding baby Jesus, is prominently displayed. Lilies are also found on the altar. A palm branch is often placed outside of a public altar as an invitation to come in.
The most common food placed on the altar is bread. Talented artisans braid and shape the bread to resemble different symbols associated with St. Joseph. The decorative breads take on the appearance of crosses, fish, ladders, saws and other carpentry tools. Wreaths of woven bread represent the crown of thorns. Cakes are baked and decorated with various religious symbols. Breadcrumbs symbolize the sawdust of the carpenter. Wine bottles are often placed on the altar to represent the miracle of Cana. The colors of the Italian flag—red, white and green—are often present. Most altars have baskets in which written petitions or donations can be placed.
Another common item found on the altars is the fava bean. Considered lucky when blessed, the fava bean was the only crop that thrived in Sicily during the drought.
Whether an intricate display at a large church or a humble offering in a modest home, St. Joseph altars are a source of petition and thanksgiving. They serve as a reminder to share some of your good fortune with those who have less.