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New Orleans’ St. Joseph’s Altars: A Feast for All

Learn about this Sicilian tradition plus where to see St. Joseph’s Day altars in New Orleans.

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A bountiful altar for St. Joseph's Day.

Ever noticed that many New Orleanians have accents similar to the kind you’d find in New York? That’s because New Orleans was a prime destination for Sicilians in the 19th century — in fact, by the late 1800s, the French Quarter was almost 80 percent Sicilian.

A bountiful altar for St. Joseph’s Day.

THE HISTORY

One of the traditions the Sicilians carried with them when they came here was the construction of elaborate altars for the Feast of Saint Joseph, celebrated on March 19. According to legend, people prayed to St. Joseph to help them during a terrible famine that ended because of an unexpected bounty of fava beans. The story goes that the people created an altar of thanks and began a yearly tradition honoring the saint. Altars piled high with food served the dual purpose of feeding the hungry.

Today, altars are still used to thank St. Joseph for answering a prayer or to ask for help. Those who cannot build their own altar are able to keep their promises to St. Joseph by working on altars in their community or church. Some altars are created out of a custom called questua, which means “searching” or “seeking.” Instead of buying the ingredients and materials for the altar, one begs for them, further humbling oneself in an act of poverty. This recalls the impoverishment of the starving Sicilians who initially asked for St. Joseph’s help. It also reminds the person on the questua of the purpose of the altar – to feed the hungry. Some celebrations include tupa tupa (or knocking). Here, children dressed up like Jesus, Joseph and Mary, knock on doors until finally being welcomed in to eat.

The intersection of luck, generosity, and a reminder of the needs of others all embody the meaning of this day.

Note the dried fava beans for good luck at this altar! (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

THE FOOD

Altars are erected in both churches and private homes and are laden with a bounty of foods associated with St. Joseph. Bread is shaped like crosses, Joseph’s staff, and his carpenter’s tools, including saws, hammers, and ladders. (St. Joseph’s bread is believed to have special powers. Throwing a morsel into a storm is believed to have the power to calm the winds. A piece kept in the house is supposed to ensure that the family will never be without food. A breadcrumb topping called mudrica, is sprinkled on pasta Milanese, representing the sawdust of the carpenter.)

Other symbolic foods include cakes shaped like lambs and covered in coconut, which represent the sacrifice of Christ. You’ll also find pastries formed like the pierced heart of the Mater Dolorosa, pignolatti resembling the pine cones Jesus is said to have played with as a child, whole fish symbolizing the Miracle of Multiplication, and wine recalling the feast at Cana. Swiping a lemon from the altar ensures one will meet the person you are destined to marry before the next St. Joseph’s Day, and each visitor takes away a dry, roasted fava bean for good luck. The intersection of luck, generosity, and a reminder of the needs of others all embody the meaning of this day.

A cake for St. Joseph’s Day. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

MORE TRADITIONS

Several other Saint Joseph traditions occur in the city, including traditional parades and the Mardi Gras Indian celebration of Super Sunday. St. Joseph altars can be found at New Orleans churches – especially those with strong Italian roots – but you’ll also find them in restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and private homes throughout the city. A fresh green branch over a local’s doorway means you’re invited to participate in the ceremony and to share the food. There are literally hundreds of altars open to the public; below are a few of the most popular ones.

WHERE TO SEE SAINT JOSEPH’S DAY ALTARS

International House Hotel

221 Camp St.

On Saturday, March 18, from 4-7 p.m., the International House Hotel will celebrate the Feast of San Giuseppe. In the lobby, you’ll find a magnificent, food-laden altar, created by local artist Britney Penouilh and her partners from New Orleans’ culinary and cultural communities. The Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians will perform along with the Gold Digger Baby Dolls. Outside the hotel, you can enjoy a sidewalk café with Italian aperitifs, Sicilian pizza from Emeril’s pastry chef Jeremy Fogg, cookies from Angelo Brocato, and breads from Dong Phuong, a Vietnamese bakery.

Rouses

Various locations

For the fifth year in a row, Rouses team members will build altars at 15 Rouses Markets on the Gulf Coast, including those at 455 Tchoupitoulas St. (Uptown), 701 Baronne St. (Warehouse District), 2851 Belle Chasse Hwy. (Westbank), 91 Westbank Expressway (Gretna), 2900 Veterans (Metairie), and 3711 Power Blvd. (Metairie). The altars feature lucky fava beans (blessed by local priests and the Archbishop of New Orleans), a statue of Saint Joseph, prayer cards, candles, “saw dust,” lemons, dried figs, cakes, Italian breads twisted into familiar Saint Joseph shapes, and authentic Italian products (no meat, of course).

Lost Love Lounge

2529 Dauphine St.

Lost Love Lounge invites you to bring your petitions, your prayers, and your appetite to its annual altar, which will be open for viewing from Thursday, March 16 until Sunday, March 19. On Sunday, there will be a blessing and feast in the afternoon that’s open to all. The bar opens at 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

St. Anselm Catholic Church 

306 St. Mary St.

Last year, this group served more than 1,200 meals and 75,000 Italian cookies. The altar will be blessed by the Rev. Frank Giroir on Saturday, March 18 after the 4 p.m. Vigil Mass. It will also be open for meatless meals on Sunday, March 19, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Avo Restaurant

5908 Magazine St.

Chef Nick Lama’s altar, featuring his family’s own cuccidati cookies (and more baked goods) will available for viewing Saturday, March 18, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Rev. Michael Schneller from St. Francis Catholic Church will bless the altar at 11:30 a.m., and food will be served to the public from noon until it’s all gone. Proceeds from the altar viewing will go to Matthew 25: Ministries/St. Francis of Assisi Church. Avo is also serving a four-course Sicilian tasting menu from March 1 to 18 for $60 per person.

St. Mary’s Assumption Church

923 Josephine  St.

For 26 years, St. Mary’s Assumption Church has been building an altar to St. Joseph. This year, the altar will be blessed on March 18, after the 4:00 p.m. mass. On Sunday, March 19, after the 10:30 a.m. mass, volunteers will start serving food to approximately 300 guests on the patio in back of church. As in past years, the altar bread will take the form of alligators, turtles, crabs, and fish. About 4,000 cookies, made by parishioners, will decorate the altar and will be served on dessert tables.

Café Adelaide

300 Poydras Street

While Café Adelaide won’t have a traditional altar this year, they will be working with the American Italian Cultural Center. What’s more, they will offer special dishes and a “cocktail of the week” inspired by Saint Joseph’s Day.


Lori Archer and Elizabeth Pearce contributed to this piece. 

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