St. Joseph Altar carries a tradition rich in faith, Sicilian culture

March 7, 2016

HOUSTON — The sugar was still piping hot when Bessie Spedale started pulling apart pieces of the pinolata dessert. First using her hands to separate the mixture of caramelized sugar and fried dough, she grabbed two forks and crafted small bite-sized portions of the Italian sweet. 

Bent over a steel kitchen table and surrounded by nearly a dozen other members of the Sacred Heart Society of Little York also pulling sugary treats at Whitney Oaks Hall in Houston, Spedale spent her Sundays preparing as quickly as she could for the Society's annual St. Joseph Altar celebration which is set for March 13. 

While the group is synonymous for its famous Italian Thursday spaghetti and meatball lunches, which often feature prominent civic, community and business leaders, the 93-year-old community began to honor its Sicilian roots when Bessie and her husband Sam Spedale, with Oscar Porcarello, established the first Sacred Heart St. Joseph Altar in 1989.


The altar is Sicilian in origin, according to the Society. Tradition holds that during the Middle Ages, a famine struck the people 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. And to honor St. Joseph, the food was given to the poor. 

A family of tradition
Generations of Italian-Americans make up the Society, like Elizabeth Cuccerre and her daughter Lisa Mallozzi. Cuccerre remembers how the altars were, and still are, a group effort of an entire community. 

"When I was a little girl in Little York, a settlement of Sicilian Italians here in Houston, the women would go around house to house to get donations to have an altar in their homes," she said. Now the altars have moved out of the homes and into church and community centers.

Today, the altar continues to carry the tradition of Sicilian-Catholic faith and culture. Reaching upwards towards the ceiling, 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 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. 

Helen Scardina, event coordinator at Whitney Oaks, recalls the experience of seeing the fruits, or in this case desserts, of her family's labor when she was younger.

"I would go to work in the morning, and my aunt, her sisters and her friends would come to my house. And when I'd come home, they'd be gone, but there would be treats all over the place!" Scardina said. "It was like, OK! ‘Where did all these come from?' They'd bake all day long. Everybody just volunteers and pitches in, it's just like a great big family."

Dawn Martin is part of that big family. "To do all this cooking and baking, I'm taking part of my Italian side of my family. I'm half Scotch-Irish-German, the other half Italian," Martin said. "It's partaking of the tradition, and hopefully passing it down to my granddaughter, she came here one day. And visiting with all my relatives." 

Mallozzi climbs the altar's three levels to lay out the all the parts of the altar. She said she follows the lead of the more experienced ladies in the group, moving around the pieces like a massive baked-good puzzle. 

Cuccerre's husband, Mallozzi's father, donated all the produce for the altar, a tradition Mallozzi now carries forward. 
"This is all my other family. We have our immediate family and then we have our expanded family," Mallozzi said. "That's what's so heartwarming... We get to come in, get to hang out with cousins and we're not at a funeral and have a good time. We talk about our mommas and daddies and cousins."

The Tree's Still Up
Though St. Joseph's feast is in March, preparations for the altar begin in January. Early in the year, Society members start gathering supplies, like eggs, butter, flour, sugar and dozens of more baking supplies before assembling thousands of treats.

"The Christmas tree is still up," laughed Scardina. 

That Sunday when Bessie Spedale pulled apart sugar and fried dough to make pinolatas was the final Sunday in a 7-week-long schedule of baking and preparation. She joined dozens of other members who each tackled different tasks of preparing for the altar. Some were bagging baked goods, others dusting sandtarts, a handful of others dissolving sugar and fried dough, and numerous other tasks seemingly as long as the ingredients for the recipes and the history of the group itself.

Ed Madonio, current leader of the Society, said the group started as a men's club as an outcrop from Assumption Catholic Church, then named Sacred Heart, off Little York Road in the early 1920s. Many members met future spouses and friends by attending functions hosted by the group.

On the north side of Houston, Little York was called "Tarucco" by Sicilian immigrants and had a very strong Italian community, he said.

Primarily farmers, the Catholic faithful gathered and began hosting their own St. Joseph Altars in their homes. Members, who often attend different parishes across town, share their expertise and passion for the altar tradition with other nearby churches, Modonio said. 

On March 13, Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza will celebrate 10:30 a.m. Mass for the Sacred Heart St. Joseph Altar, with Father Albert Zanatta, C.R.S., as concelebrant, at Whitney Oaks Hall (816 E. Whitney Dr., Houston). Archbishop will bless the altar after Mass, and join hundreds of others for a meal of pasta and other traditional Sicilian foods and baked goods. 

The baked goods — sandtarts, fig treats, the pinolatas, wedding rings and more — that the Society members all donated will be sold to visitors and attendees. Historically, proceeds from the altar benefit the St. Vincent de Paul Society, continuing the tradition honoring St. Joseph by feeding the poor, much like the Holy Family's experience of poverty during their flight from Egypt.

Several other parishes in the Archdiocese host their own St. Joseph Altar. On March 12, St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church (7810 Cypresswood Dr., Spring) which hosts an altar celebration following 5:15 p.m. Mass. On March 17, St. Joseph Catholic Church (11323 CR 304, Stoneham) hosts an altar following 5:30 p.m. Mass.

For more about the Sacred Heart Society of Little York, visit www.whitneyoakshall.com.