"St. Joseph's Altar at St. Joseph's Church in Gretna," All Photos by Burke Bischoff

Missing Saint Joseph

17:00 March 18, 2021
By: Phil LaMancusa

With the advent of steam engines in the early 1800s, transatlantic crossings became more efficient and timely. Entrepreneurs from a small island kingdom called Sicily began opening Mediterranean commerce, bringing high quality and, at that time, exotic products including wines, olives, cheeses, and, especially, the wonderful Sicilian lemons. Each lemon was wrapped individually in paper, carefully placed in a bed of shredded paper, and sent on its 29-day trip to the ports of New York and New Orleans, timed to arrive perfectly ripe and to be sold to waiting brokers.

Sicilians began staying in these ports in large numbers and performing odd jobs: farming, fishing, and opening businesses. The immigrants also found seasonal work harvesting sugar cane. By the 1840s, New Orleans was the third largest city in the USA, with tens of thousands of immigrants from Sicily settling in and around what we call the French Quarter. So many had settled there that, at that time, the area was known as Little Palermo. These immigrants brought a saint with them: Saint Joseph the Worker, patron saint of laborers and artisans (also known as the husband of Jesus's mother, Mary), with a feast day of March 19th.

Historically, Saint Joseph is said to have saved the Sicilians from drought, famine, and starvation by allowing them to plant and harvest fava beans. To celebrate, altars of food are erected in Catholic churches and Catholic homes. Ritually, the altars are three tiered, acknowledging the Holy Trinity, and decorated with flowers, pastries, breads, wine, and, at times, seafood; it is during Lent so, traditionally, there is no meat. The altars are usually erected starting March 10 and remain until the feast day of the 19th when an ample meal is prepared for visitors. The food is served to anyone hungry. Anyone. Any leftovers are donated to the underprivileged.

I've been to St. Joseph's meals throughout the city in my tenure here (31 years and counting). The last one before the pandemic was a lunch at St. Augustine, where two Sicilians, who had baked and donated thousands of cookies, explained to a largely African American congregation that they did this each year for them because, in the very early days, they (Sicilians) were banned from worshiping in Creole churches and it was St. Augustine's church that took them in and they would not forget that kindness, not even after 200 years.

The Mardi Gras Indians come out to celebrate St. Joseph's Day as well. When I asked Big Chief David Montana of the Washita Nation why, he simply said, "Because St. Joseph was black!" I had not thought of that aspect, but given the proximity and cultural geographics 2,000 plus years ago, I find no argument either for or against, and, for me, St. Joe (I call him Joe) could be any color or ethnic profile. You see, I am a fan and a believer of and in St. Joe: his style, example, and message; I dearly miss celebrating his special day because of this friggin' plague.

I miss getting my little goody bag with the prayer card, the blessed fava bean to keep in my wallet all year for luck and money, the fig and sesame cookies, and that slice of French bread to throw out of my back window in case of storms.

The story is that Mary was engaged in marriage to Joe (arranged, I'm sure) and he found out that she was already pregnant. He was about to call it all off when an angel visited him in a dream and told him that the child she carried was the son of God. The wedding was back on and he spent his days providing for and protecting their lives and limbs. He is called Jesus's "Earthly Father" and, to me, that is worthy. I look up to him, and, as a child of the universe, I can truthfully say that Joseph the Worker is truly a saint and I call on him whenever I need patience, perseverance, and understanding. I want to be like him when I grow up.

Saint Joseph, who was a carpenter by trade, is the patron saint of workers, artisans, and, some say, of unwed mothers; others will tell you that he is the patron saint of secrets (if you tell St. Joe a secret, you can be sure that he'll keep it) and that he has the power, through your prayers, to steer storms away. He is the consummate everyman and, if you believe, he will keep you from harm.

I consider myself a spiritual rather than a religious person and, as such, do not adhere to limiting doctrines and house of worship rituals; I also am a proud Sicilian. This gives me the freedom to believe any fanciful, celebratory, joyous, loving, and positive occasion, especially if they include Mardi Gras Indians and big lunches.

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