This weekend, as we have done around March 19th for the last several years, our family visited Papa Calvagna’s home parish in Rockford for the Feast of St. Joseph. The Feast of St. Joseph is a tradition that began in Sicily many centuries ago. After a particularly long and difficult period of drought and famine, the Sicilians turned to St. Joseph in prayer for help. Rains came, crops grew and yielded fruit, and the Sicilians said thank you in the most Sicilian of ways—with food.
Finest grains, fruits, vegetables, seafood and wine were collected and prepared, and all in the community were invited to share in this festival of prayer and thanksgiving. This traditional feast immigrated with the Italians to America and is still celebrated today. Altars are offered in parishes for the surrounding community, and individuals may host St. Joseph’s Altars in thanksgiving of events like the safe return of a family member from military duty, healing of the ill, successes in work or school, or obstacles overcome.
For us this festival is a time to celebrate our family and its beginnings. St. Anthony’s parish is in the old Italian section of Rockford, and at the Parish is a statue of Mary erected in memory of Nelly Calvagna, great-grandmother of my daughter. Papa attended school at St. Anthony’s and talks about the old church, the big bell that was rung three times daily with a rope. Now, where the old school used to stand is a sculpture garden in which my daughter can run and play. She runs where her great grandmother once walked with her own children.
Papa shows us the tiny little house that his family lost during the Great Depression and explains how poor the family was, and how hard people have worked to gain all that we have since those humble beginnings. My daughter has never known such poverty, and I hope that she never will. But she should know that good and strong people come from very humble beginnings. Many of them go on to do great and wonderful things because they are able to work hard, get an education or learn a trade and because they were part of a larger community in which there was a genuine ethic of care. Often hard work is not enough, and that is what charity, compassion and living graciously and gratefully are about, and much of what the St. Joseph’s Altar symbolizes.
The St. Joseph’s Altar is about sharing your good fortune with those around you and giving back to your community, freely and openly, in thanksgiving. It is a feast of humility, with bread crumbs (instead of cheese) on the pasta to represent the sawdust of the carpenter Joseph. In that humility, there is great generosity.
For me, too, this festival has significance. It is not lost on me that my father’s name was Anthony Joseph, and that we are attending the Feast of St. Joseph at St. Anthony’s Parish. My father’s family had its own humble beginnings. His dad ran a bicycle shop, back when bicycles weren’t the domain of the rich and leisurely. My dad worked as a pressman all his life. As a first-generation college graduate, I benefited from my dad’s hard work. My parents made that possible.
In this age of instant gratification, of jealously guarding what is “mine”, we often forget the shoulders of the humble giants who have allowed us to arrive where we are today. Without the hard work, generosity and sacrifice of those came before and freely gave back to others, we would not enjoy the blessings that we do today.
©2015 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.