St. Joseph Altar
Another New Orleans tradition is the St. Joseph Altar. The tradition, commemorating the relief St. Joseph provided during a famine in Sicily, began in the late 1800’s when Sicilian immigrants settled in New Orleans. Our family has a large one at my home every year. Below are some pictures taken by me and my cousin Sheik Richardson from our 2013 altar, which is our 17th.
The History of the Altar
The tradition of the St. Joseph Altar began in Sicily in the Middle Ages, during a period of famines and droughts. The farmers turned to St. Joseph, their patron saint, to intercede to God for them so they would have a successful crop. At last the skies opened, sending down the life-giving water. To show their gratitude, the people prepared a table with the foods they harvested and after paying homage to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the poor.
Many customs are associated with the St. Joseph Altar. Bread is shaped into symbolic items such as fish, chalices, hearts, and carpenter tools. The altar itself is built in three tiers to represent the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph stands in the center. Lilies, the flower associated with St. Joseph, decorate the altar. Statues of other saints and icons, candles and photographs of deceased loved ones are also part of the lower tiers of the altar. Almost everything on the altar has some symbolic significance. There are baskets where visitors to the altar can place their petitions.
The main attraction of the St. Joseph Altar is the food. Traditional food items, such as fig cookies and biscotti, fruits and pasta, all meatless, are served. As is custom, all food is donated by the host families and friends. Sometimes donations will be collected for a certain charity.
Those who attend the altar, will be given a bag containing prayer cards, cookies, a piece of blessed bread and a blessed fava bean. The fava bean sustained the people of Sicily during one famine. Legend has it that if you carry it with you, you will never be without coins. Some believe that if you keep the piece of bread in your freezer, you will never be without food.