Photo by Burke Bischoff

Throughout The Years: St. Joseph and His Altars

09:00 March 15, 2021
By: Keith John Paul Horcasitas

As a cancelled Mardi Gras has passed and we are into the season of Lent, we can still find ways to celebrate with family and friends as per the upcoming Feast of St. Joseph on March 19, which is also when the swallows make their annual return to the Mission San Juan Capistrano in California.

Unfortunately, the public St. Joseph Altars will be cancelled for a second time due to the pandemic. This will be surely hard as Pope Francis had declared a "Year of St. Joseph" on December 8, 2020, which was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. My wife, Maria, and I still look forward to the many traditions and treasures associated with some private St. Joseph altars that certainly brings back so many cherished memories for many of us living in southeast Louisiana.

"Sacred Heart, Baton Rouge," Photo by Keith John Paul Horcasitas

Even though we both grew up in New Orleans, my family didn't participate as much in the St. Joseph altars as Maria's family, who have an Italian heritage. Her widowed aunt, Rose, was a special lady who, every year, would erect a carefully crafted St. Joseph altar at her own home no matter what she was dealing with. Despite the struggles she had dealt with for many years of providing direct home care to her invalid husband, Anthony, she continued this tradition of dedication to St. Joseph until she died in 1985.

I was amazed to find out how much time she had dedicated to preparing all of the various meals and sweets for the altar and how the tradition had begun. The non-meat Pasta Milanese and fig cookies were, and still, are my favorite treats. It is fun to sprinkle a "saw dust" mixture of brown sugar and Italian seasoning on the Milanese! Aunt Rose educated me about the background to the St. Joseph altar and how it was Sicilian in origin back to the Middle Ages.

During a famine when food was very scarce and limited to things like fava beans, a livestock feed, the people of Sicily pleaded to St. Joseph, their patron saint, for relief, and then the famine ended. In gratitude, they prepared a table with foods they had harvested. After paying homage to St. Joseph, the Sicilian people would then distribute the food to the less fortunate.

The St. Joseph altar is set up in three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph is on the top tier surrounded by flowers, greenery, and fruit. No meat is prepared for the altar, since the feast takes place during Lent. Breads, cakes, and cookies, baked in symbolic Christian shapes, are prepared for the altar. Donations are usually taken at the altars to distribute to varying charities to help the poor.

Petitions of the faithful can be written on pieces of paper and placed in baskets on the altar along with photos of deceased relatives and friends to be remembered. Usually, people visiting the altar will be given a "goodie bag" containing a napkin, a few cookies, a piece of fruit, and perhaps a St. Joseph prayer card or a medal, as well as fava beans for good fortune.

In New Orleans, Maria belonged to the Elenian Club, an Italian American organization, which used to hold an annual St. Joseph's altar at the Piazza d'Italia
it was incredible how large the altar was and how it encompassed so many varied depictions and statues of St. Joseph and the Holy Family.

In Baton Rouge, there are many varied traditional altars by the Grandsons of Italy and other organizations. We used to attend the bishop's mass that was usually held every year on St. Joseph's Day at St. Joseph's Cathedral with a meal held afterward, but not this year due to the pandemic. We used to go to gatherings at other local churches and enjoyed learning about other traditions associated with the day.

"Cypress Springs Prayer Center, Baton Rouge," Photo by Keith John Paul Horcasitas

St. Joseph's Hospice, which helped my displaced parents from New Orleans (whom had died in 2006 and had never gotten back to New Orleans after Katrina), also did a nice altar at its Carpenter House every year. We also enjoyed helping at an altar that was celebrated every year at Cypress Heights Academy, where two of our children had attended. In the past, I remember having looked in The Advocate's classified ads to find people who would invite anyone to come to view their altars. We went to one of these as a family, and it was so neat to share in our devotion to St. Joseph!

While St. Joseph is known as the patron saint for the dying and a great intercessor for those looking for employment, he has also been prayed to for help in selling one's home. I have never espoused to the superstition of putting a statue of St. Joseph upside down underground in your yard to aid in getting your house sold. We did, however, make a donation to the Sisters of St. Joseph in New Orleans before getting a buyer for our house not long before we moved to Baton Rouge!

It is neat to think how people named Joseph in the both the Old Testament and New Testament were both pivotal figures in following God's commands. Joseph, whom God communicated with through dreams, helped pave the way for the Jewish people's safety into Egypt. And St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was also so obedient to God's communications to him per dreams in leading the Holy Family in safety to Egypt from Bethlehem. While there is no recorded word attributed to Joseph in the New Testament, like the old saying goes, "Actions speak louder than words!"

As I have a special devotion to both Mary and Joseph, I had always wanted to write and record a song for him. Finally, while on my Manresa Retreat in 2000, I wrote this song dedicated to him.

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