Monday, March 19, 2012

History of St. Joseph's Altar

Thank you Mary Jane for sharing the photo source. Be sure to click here to see all of them. Mary Jane also shared this article on St. Joseph's Altar. Mahalo to both of you!

Sicily, the largest and most populous of the Mediterranean Islands, is
located just across the Strait of Messina from the Italian mainland. Be-
cause of its location in the north central Mediterranean Sea, it has often
been used as a "stepping stone" to and from the European continent.
Invaders, at various times, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans,
the Arabs, the Normans, and Spanish have ruled Sicily. It was under
the Arabs in the ninth century that agriculture and commerce flour-
ished. By cultivating mountainous land, grapes, olives, and oranges
became the main crops and chief exports. The Arabs were driven out
by the Normans and so on, but the crops continued to be the chief

It was in the nineteenth century that Sicily discovered a new source of
trade, the United States. New Orleans was one of the chief ports of call
for Sicilian merchants, coming on a regular basis to trade their farm
products for American cotton. With this trade came numbers of Sicilian
businessmen, and thus a small Sicilian community came into being.
There were nine hundred fifteen Italians in New Orleans in the 1850
U.S. Census, more than any other U.S. city including New York at that

When the great emigration from Sicily began in 1880, New Orleans
became the main destination for many Sicilians. In 1910 almost 40%
of the population of Louisiana was of Italian descent and more than
90% of these Italians were from Sicily. These new Americans brought
with them many of their old beliefs and customs. One of these was their
devotion to St. Joseph and the custom of the St. Joseph Altar.

The exact date of the origin and the circumstances of the St. Joseph
Altar is not known, but it is believed to be in the sixteenth century in
one of the small western farm communities located south of Palermo.
Whatever the origin, it reached its popularity in Sicily in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries with entire villages taking part. It is believed
that when a great famine occured, the people prayed to St. Joseph
and, in gratitude for their survival, staged a celebration in his honor.

The legend of "The Invited Ones" dominated the ceremony. In this leg-
end the Holy Family, played by three memebers of the village, are denied
food and drink at two locations; then at the third they are invited in to
eat and drink. Legend has it that at this third location food and drink
never runs out, no matter how much is consumed. At the end of the
ceremony, the food was distributed to the villages.

When the first St. Joseph Altar in New Orleans was held is uncertain,
but it was probably just before World War I and was celebrated in a
private home. Altars became popular in the years that followed, taking
place in private homes given for reasons ranging from a family member's
recovery from illness to help in a financial venture. In later years the
altars have become less and less private and more and more public
functions sponsored and given by church, ethnic, and social organiza-
tions. Among these is the St. Joseph Women's Club of St. Joseph
Church in Gretna, Louisiana, who put on one of the largest altars in
the Metropolitan New Orleans area.

~~~Taken from the St. Joseph's Women's Club
Altar Cookbook, Gretna, Louisiana

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