My daughter participated in a family tradition this week, the St. Joseph’s Altar at St. Anthony Church in Rockford. The St. Joseph’s Altar is a Sicilian tradition that rises out of gratitude and leads to blessings shared with others.
The tradition of the St. Joseph Altar began after a particularly extended drought on Sicily. Agriculture was the mainstay of the island, and the drought had caused crops to fail. The only crop that was able to grow in the harsh conditions was the fava bean. The islanders prayed to the St. Joseph, the patron saint, for relief. Rain came and the crops began to recover, and the Sicilians celebrated with a feast with the food they had harvested in honor of St. Joseph in thanks. After honoring St. Joseph, they shared the bounty of their harvest with those less fortunate.
St. Joseph’s altars became ornate and symbolic celebrations held annually on the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19. The St. Joseph’s altar is filled with symbolism, from the way the food is presented and arranged to the food itself. Fava beans are present as symbols of luck, and some even say that a cupboard with a fava bean will never be empty, harkening back to when the fava bean was the only thing that was able to grow. The altar will quite often be in the shape of the cross, with three tiers to represent the Holy Trinity. Usually the meal offered is meatless, in part because the Feast of St. Joseph occurs during Lent and in part because there was little meat in the Sicilian diet. Bread crumbs are often sprinkled over pasta as symbols of the carpenter’s sawdust, and fish will be part of the meal, representing the feeding of the crowds with the fish and the loaves. Wine is offered as a symbol of the miracle at the wedding in Cana.
St . Joseph’s Altars became part of the American tradition through the Sicilian immigrants to this country who brought with them their rich cultural heritage. Many immigrated through the port of New Orleans, and the Feast of St. Joseph and St. Joseph’s altars are quite common in Louisiana. When my father-in-law was growing up, they were quite common in Rockford among the Italian community as well. People would have altars in their homes to celebrate some blessing in their life such as the safe return of a loved one from war or the healing of a family member from illness. Anyone was welcome to come to the altar in the home and eat. People shared their blessings and good fortune with those in the community around them.
Today the St. Joseph’s Altars that remain tend to be highly organized activities such as the one hosted by St. Anthony Church, where the meal is free to all who come, and an offering for the poor in the community is received. What I have enjoyed in observing this tradition is that in our family no one plans to go to the St. Joseph Altar, but we always wind up meeting some new cousin or seeing some family member or close friend that we haven’t seen in years. This year sadly, some family members were notably absent from this tradition; yet, in coming together as family and friends around a common table we honored their memory and some of the blessings of having known them were shared with the younger family members.
As my daughter experienced her first St. Joseph’s Altar, I know she was a little bored waiting in a long line where mostly what she saw were the legs of senior citizens. But she met new cousins. She greeted new friends, and she was part of something larger than herself, something that reaches back generations and ties her to her ancestors. It’s a tradition that I am pleased she is part of as well. I let her put the offering for the poor into the offering box. She learned that some people don’t have family and need someone to show them kindness and give them a warm meal. And, she ate all the healthy food on her plate without being asked, said please and thank you, and was polite to her elders. For that I sent up a prayer of thanks and marvel that maybe, just maybe, her daddy and I are doing something right.
For now though, I think I’ll go put that fava bean in the cupboard.
© 2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.