Upcoming St. Joseph altar celebrations continue beloved Sicilian tradition

March 10, 2020

Intricate handmade baked goods are seen in front of a recent St. Joseph Altar at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Memorial Park in Houston. The St. Joseph Altar, a Sicilian tradition that honors the patron saint of the poor, features dozens of baked goods fashioned in Christian shapes like fish, crosses, wreaths and other symbols. (File photo by James Ramos/Herald)

HOUSTON — A centuries-old Italian tradition comes alive once again at parishes throughout the Archdiocese.

Parishioners celebrate the feast of St. Joseph in March with elaborate St. Joseph Altars that honor the patron of Sicily and the poor.

The tradition is carried on from Sicily. The story holds that, during the Middle Ages, a famine struck the island of Sicily, who, in turn, sought help from St. Joseph to end their starvation and death, promising a feast in his honor if he did save them.

The famine soon ended, and altars were prepared throughout the island. To honor St. Joseph, the food was given to the poor.

Faithful keep this tradition alive with its recipes, intricate bread plaiting and more, all handed down from generation to generation. The altar is still prepared today in gratitude.

Reaching upwards towards the ceiling, the altars are often multi-tiered delicate constructions. Usually, the altar’s three tiers represent the Holy Trinity, with a statue of St. Joseph on the top tier.

While no meat is ever used in the altar, or the meal, since the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19) is during Lent, dozens of baked breads, cakes and hundreds of treats — many in symbolic Christian shapes like monstrances, chalices, crosses, fish and wreaths — fill the different levels.

Among the several parishes continuing the tradition is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Houston. On Sunday, March 15, the parish’s Italian Club hosts its celebration at 10:30 a.m. with a blessing of the “saints,” or children dressed up as saints, followed by a pasta dinner served until 2:30 p.m.

Donations for the meal are accepted, but there is a cost for dessert. To-go orders are available. Total proceeds benefit the poor in the area. For more information, call 281-463-7878.

On March 21, the St. Joseph Altar Guild at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church, located at 7810 Cypresswood Dr. in Spring, will host their St. Joseph Altar at 6:30 p.m. following the 5:15 p.m. Mass. Father Norbert Maduzia, pastor, will lead the “Tupa Tupa,” a children’s depiction of the Holy Family, alongside some saints, going door-to-door looking for food and shelter before finding the St. Joseph Table. A Sicilian meal will be served, including pasta, hard-boiled eggs, green beans, salad and bread. Homemade Italian cookies and cannoli will be available for sale.

Other activities include a raffle. Admission is free, but donations are accepted, which with proceeds, will benefit the St. Ignatius Outreach Ministry, which helps those in need in the parish and neighboring communities. For more information or donations, call contact 713-825-4576 or 713-553-1214, or email stjosephaltarguild@silcc.org.

Also on March 21, St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church, located at 1604 9th Ave. N in Texas City, holds its celebration. Their three-tiered altar will also be decorated with baked goods, fruit, religious articles for the meatless feast honoring St. Joseph.

A traditional Sicilian meal will also be served, including pasta, Italian green beans, boiled eggs, salad and Sicilian treats like cuccidati, biscotti, giuggiulena and Italian Wedding Rings. Tickets are $6 per person, with proceeds and donations benefitting outreach to the poor.

The next day, on March 22, Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church’s St. Joseph Altar Society will host its annual St. Joseph Altar and spaghetti luncheon at 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the parish hall, located at 11507 Huffmeister Rd. in Houston.

The event features its ornate St. Joseph Altar, a procession of “Little Saints,” a traditional Sicilian lunch, and sale of homemade Italian cookies and other items at its St. Joseph Market. Proceeds benefit Cypress Assistance Ministry. While admission to view the altar is free, meal tickets are $7 for adults and $4 for children. Kids under three eat free.