St. Joseph Altar Tradition Continues

On a Tuesday afternoon in the St. Albert the Great Atrium of the Gayle and Tom Benson Science Complex, St. Mary’s Dominican High School alumnae Dr. Lindsey Huber (’08), Peggy Delarosa ’68), Alumnae Director Celeste Anding (’82), and Sr. Angeline Magro, OP (’55), met to continue the tradition of making a St. Joseph Altar for the school community.  Every March 19th, New Orleans celebrates St. Joseph’s Day by constructing altars all around the city to honor St. Joseph, the father of Jesus and Patron Saint of carpenters and workers, fathers, travelers, unborn children, immigrants, and dying a happy death. In the 1880’s, when Sicilians began migrating to New Orleans in large numbers, Sicilian Catholics brought the tradition of the Feast of St. Joseph with them. The practice started in the Middle Ages after prayers to St. Joseph were answered during a drought in Sicily. Rain arrived and brought a plentiful crop of fava beans that saved the population from famine.

The altar’s draping is festive green, red, and white – colors of the Italian flag. Decorations feature Italian cookies, cakes decorated with religious drawings of the Pascal Lamb or the Holy Family. Breads are often in the form of shellfishand other religious symbols. The fava bean, also called “Lucky Bean,” symbolizes hope because it sustained the Sicilians during the famine. Fresh fruit represents Fullness of Life and Resurrection. Redfish symbolizes the Bounty from the Sea. A vase of white roses represents Joseph’s virtue, holiness, innocence, and obedience to God. Lilies symbolize integrity and indicate that Saint Joseph was the earthly spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose purity is represented by the chaste white lily. Three flowers are used to represent the Blessed Trinity. There are statues of angels, Mary, St. Joseph, and the Holy Family, as well as other saints.  Prayer cards, rosaries, and photographs of deceased loved ones are also part of the Joseph Altar.  The altar food will be donated to the Dominican Sisters of Peace and The Peace Center.

Dominican alumna Sandra Scalise Juneau (’58) is a culinary historian and author who has shared her deep knowledge of St. Joseph Altars with students and alumnae, and beyond the New Orleans community.  She has designed St. Joseph Altars that are permanent exhibits at Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans. Her book, Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars, The HistoryRecipes and Symbols of a New Orleans Tradition is part of The Southern Table series from LSU Press. Juneau’s lifetime of research and teaching are reflected in this treasury of family recipes, history, and cherished traditions.