Sophia Petrillo told me: “Picture it! … Sicily … hundreds of years ago. There’s a big drought and the people are starving; they’re starving! AND THIRSTY! The sailors are out in the boats trying to catch fish in a fierce storm—they’re gettin’ NUTHIN’! Somewhere in the distance, a dog barks. The people, the sailors, the dog, are praying; they’re praying and praying. To whom? To Saint Joseph, patron saint of the every man, of secrets, and of unwed mothers. Saint Joseph looks down and says, ‘Oh, my stars and garters. My poor, poor Sicilian children (he always liked us best). I need to help them!’
“So, help them he does. It rains … a lot. They’re catching fish like crazy, and all of a sudden, guess what? Fava beans start to grow from out of nowhere! The people are so happy that they prepare a festa in Saint Joseph’s honor. They drink nero d’avola, they bake cuccidatti, they make maccu di San Guiseppi. They dance around and sing and hug each other, and that’s where my great great grandparents meet. And if it wasn’t for Saint Joseph, I wouldn’t be here today to tell the story. Now, shut up and eat your spaghetti!”
Well, as any red-blooded New Orleanian knows, we celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day on March 19. Catholics, Sicilians (same animal), and the churches they attend take a lot of time and build altars of food to commemorate the occasion of this auspicious celebration. On the altar are cheeses, cookies, wine, loaves and fishes, and all manner of foodstuffs. In fact, at St. Cletus Church (3600 Claire Ave. in Gretna), they start working on their altar in January. The altars are in three tiers to signify the blessings of the “Holy Family,” and after St. Joseph’s Day, the altar is given to the less fortunate. The altar can be simple, like in a person’s home, or bigger and more elaborate like Saint Mary’s (1116 Chartres St.), which is as big as a magnolia tree. Saint Joseph Church in Gretna (610 6th St.) is alleged to house the biggest altar of its kind in the country.
On Saint Joseph’s feast day (which this year is on March 18 because the 19 falls on a Sunday), a feast of its own is laid out for all comers regardless of race, creed, color, ethnicity, religion, or any other orientation or persuasion. It’s during Lent so there is no meat served, but an epidemic of pasta reigns, as well as salads, stuffed artichokes, cakes, and lemonade. You’ll see your neighbors and make new friends, and Saint Joseph will smile because you’ll be well-rested, well-loved, and well-fed, which is all the blessing that anyone can/should truly ask for.
Also, when you go to church to participate in the awe of the altar, you will be given a little paper bag containing a Saint Joseph prayer card, two Sicilian cookies (one sesame, one fig), a blessed fava bean (to keep in your wallet for luck and money), and a slice of French bread. We all can logically find the significance of the objects, except probably the new kids might wonder about the French bread. Quite simply, people here are instructed to keep that bread until a storm approaches, and when that happens, they should throw that bread out of the back door/window to have the storm pass on by. If you believe it, it is true.
Saint Joseph’s Day is also a Mardi Gras Indian celebratory occasion called Super Sunday. It is the last day that the Indians come out in this year’s “old suit” before dismantling it to begin next year’s “new suit.” I asked Big Chief David Montana of the Washitaw Nation why the Indians celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day, and he told me “because Saint Joseph was black!” That kind of stands to reason because, back then, the biblical people would have been North Africans and probably a lot darker in complexion than we lily white Anglo-Saxon Christians have always portrayed them.
Be that as it may, it is a fact that a wave of Sicilians descended on New Orleans in the late 1800s. In the white society of that time, they were considered the “lowest of the low” and as such—along with African Americans—were not allowed to worship in the “higher class” Catholic churches. It’s also a fact that African Americans ultimately built their own church where they welcomed their Sicilian neighbors. That church is Saint Augustine in the Treme district, and it still provides a considerable Saint Joseph’s celebration. Some speculate that the Mardi Gras Indians picked up their Sicilian neighbors’ religious traditions and took advantage of the break in Lent to take their suits out for one last spin. All of that is speculation. What we know for certain is that even today, Saint Joseph’s is a holiday that transcends cultural lines. Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday celebrations are one of the few times of the year when outsiders can see the Indians in their elaborate costumes and appreciate the work, time, and talent that making them entails. Super Sundays are traditionally kicked off in A.L. Davis Park in Central City. However, other neighborhoods like the Westbank and Bayou St. John also host their own celebrations. Processions are held, and we hold dear the words of Otis P. Driftwood: “Let joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlors.”
So, mark your calendars for that weekend and you can make it a full, busy, wonderful time. March 17th is Saint Patrick’s Day, the 18th will be Saint Joseph’s, and then the 19th will be Super Sunday. Look for a fish fry in your neighborhood to really glut out. Also look for the Irish-Italian parade where the Irish will be giving out cabbages and potatoes and the Italians will be trading flowers for kisses. Buona fortuna.