Altars celebrate Sicilian devotion to St. Joseph

March 28, 2023

Handmade baked goods are seen on a St. Joseph Altar on March 11 at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Spring. 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 and other symbol. (By James Ramos/Herald)

PICTURED: St. Joseph Altar at St. Ignatius of Loyola in Spring

SPRING — With a loud thunk-thunk-thunk, St. Joseph knocked on the door and called out: “We seek food and shelter.”

A voice beyond the door responded: “There is no room for you here.” Asking again, knocking on another door, St. Joseph cries out: “We seek food and shelter,” only to receive another decline.

Finally, perhaps the third time is really the charm. After a visit to a third door, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are finally welcomed into the room, where an Italian feast was prepared for the journeying trio, concluding the “Tupa Tupa” at the St. Joseph’s Altar celebration at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Spring.

Held ahead of the March 20 Solemnity of St. Joseph, the gathering at St. Ignatius was one of the dozens of St. Joseph Altars held around the Archdiocese honoring the earthly father of Jesus.

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.

From Louisiana to Texas

Many faithful from generations of Sicilian descent, coming from Louisiana over time, 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 Solemnity of St. Joseph (usually March 19, but transferred to March 20 this year) 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.

Following the March 11 evening Mass at St. Ignatius, a troop of saints, including the Holy Family, processed from the Church to the Christus Center, where the towering altar was set up. Father Norbert Maduzia, pastor, and other St. Joseph Altar Guild members led 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.

Below the altar, a cloth banner declares: “SAN GIUSEPPE PREGA PER NOI” invoking the prayers of St. Joseph. Just above the stitched banner, homemade cakes lined the table with an iced, smiling lamb, a book and two intricately decorated eggs.

Just outside the main gathering area, an Italian market buzzed with life as volunteers began to serve a Sicilian meal that featured pasta al pomodoro, hard-boiled eggs, green beans, salad and bread. Also for sale were homemade Italian baked goods, including cuccidati fig cookies, biscotti, tanallucci wedding ring cookies, giugiuleni sesame cookies, paletermitani chocolate pecan cookies and limone cookies buzzed with activity with sellers quickly hawking cookies. Other activities included a raffle, with donations and proceeds benefiting the parish and St. Joseph Altar Guild’s outreach ministries, which helps those in need in the parish and neighboring communities.

Remembering the past

A separate side altar, an ancestry table featured an intimate candle- and lamp-lit shelf recalled loved ones through many photos of family members that have died, as well as photos from past St. Joseph Altars. Smiling bakers, former guild members and volunteers beamed from framed photos next to flowers and vases. A hand-drawn map of Sicily highlighted the geography of the Italian island.

Beginning the celebration, a program introduced the history of the St. Joseph Altar, as well as live music sung by Ken Camerino, accompanied by pianist Peter Ramirez. Father Maduzia presided over the Rite of Blessing with a prayer of blessing, showering holy water onto the altar. The crew of saints also assisted Father Maduzia in blessing the altar.

At each of the altars, ornate and hand-baked breads stood tall next to statues of St. Joseph, fruit, red- and green-colored candles and flickering white candles. The breads were fashioned into a half-dozen shapes, each with symbolism tied to Jesus and the Holy Family.
Wreathes represented Jesus’s crown of thorns; a heart symbolized the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary; a staff recalled St. Joseph’s staff; palms echoed the palms raised at Jesus’s arrival into Jerusalem; fish represented Christ and Christianity; crosses remembered the Crucifixion and a monstrance recalled the Sacred Heart, as well as the Eucharist.

Other baked goods included bready crabs, seen alongside lilies, sandals, ladders, saws, hammers and nails, as well as “modica,” breadcrumbs, as sawdust, recalling St. Joseph’s trade as a carpenter. Wine bottles that sat among fresh vegetables recalled the first miracle of Jesus.

Among other parishes around the Archdiocese, the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston hosted its own St. Joseph Altar on March 19 following each of the parish’s Sunday Masses.

In La Marque, Queen of Peace Parish hosted a three-day celebration also honored St. Joseph, starting on March 18 with a blessing of the parish’s altar after the Saturday Vigil Mass. On March 19, a procession followed the 11 a.m. Mass with a San Giuseppe Meal. Then a St. Joseph Rosary and Mass celebrated the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 20. Proceeds from the weekend’s celebrations benefited the sick, elderly and poor of Galveston County.

At St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Clear Lake, their March 19 St. Joseph Altar included a dinner and an Italian dessert table. Proceeds from the event benefited St. Hyacinth Parish in Deer Park, which continues its recovery efforts following a catastrophic tornado that struck the parish in January.

Even the Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province, known as the Vietnamese Dominicans, also held their own St. Joseph’s Altar at their convent. Their mulit-level, candle-lit altar shimmered with baked breads, votive saint candles and ivory-colored flowers and fresh greenery, while a life-sized statue of St. Joseph watched from behind.