A guide to the St. Joseph’s Day altars

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An offering of fava beans in front of an image of St. Joseph at an altar in St. Stephen’s Church on Napoleon.

Saturday, March 19, is the Feast Day of St. Joseph, and the lavish altars celebrating the day are truly a feast for the eyes.

The altars offered as thanks for relieving hunger are overflowing with food: fish, pasta, pastries, breads in symbolic shapes. (You won’t find any meat; St. Joseph’s Day always falls during Lent.)

The altars are also laden with symbolism, from the palm frond over the door as you enter to the swag bag handed out as you leave. The altar itself is traditionally constructed in the shape of a cross with three tiers to represent the Holy Trinity; a statue of St. Joseph is placed at the center of the top tier.

Uptown Messenger file photo

Altars, like this one at De La Salle High School, are often in the shape of the cross.

Most items on the altar represent the patron saint of Sicily, workers and family. Bread is shaped into St. Joseph’s staff. His profession is honored by baking bread in the shapes of carpenter’s tools such as ladders, saws and hammers. Bread crumbs scattered on the altar and on the pasta dishes symbolize a carpenter’s sawdust.

Hard-boiled eggs embedded in the bread represent springtime rebirth. Altars will have vases of white lilies, a symbol of purity for Joseph’s celibate marriage to Mary.

A bowl of lemons, which are linked to fidelity in the Catholic faith, is often placed on the altar. Tradition has it that if a single woman steals a lemon from the altar, she will be married by the next St. Joseph’s Day, assuming she is using the right dating app.

The altars also honor Jesus, the boy Joseph raised. A whole baked fish represents the Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves. Bottles of wine recall the wedding feast at Cana. And pignolatti, a Sicilian pastry, represent the pinecones Jesus played with as a child.

Uptown Messenger file photo

Bread is shaped into St. Joseph’s staff.

Of course, the fava bean plays a prominent role in the altars. The bean was the only crop that survived a severe drought in Sicily during the Middle Ages, a drought that St. Joseph is credited with ending through divine intervention and dried beans.

Fava beans are now thought to bring good luck and abundance. Baskets of colorful gilded beans and beans painted like little Italian flags are placed on the altars. Green fava beans are sometimes served with garlic sauce at the St. Joseph’s Day meal.

Blessed fava beans are given out to worshipers as they leave the altar. Carry it with you, legend has it, and you’ll never run out of money. Visitors may also receive a prayer card, a St. Joseph pendant, Italian cookies and dried bread that has been blessed by a priest.

Eat the cookies, but save the dried bread to toss into your yard when a storm is in the Gulf, calling on St. Joseph to protect your home. Though you should still board up your windows.

To join in the symbolism, wear red to visit the altar. Just as green is worn on St. Patrick’s Day, Catholics in Italy and Poland wear red on St. Joseph’s Day.

After St. Joseph’s Day has passed and the altar is broken down, its food is delivered to needy families in the parish. Cash donations collected at the altars are distributed to charities.

Below you can find some altars in the Uptown area, from a list compiled by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Altars can also be found in private homes  as well as businesses. If you know of an altar not on this list, please leave the information in a comment to this story.

See here to find other altars in and around New Orleans. Buona festa di San Giuseppe!

Uptown Messenger file photo

The altar at St. Joseph Catholic Church

ST. ALPHONSUS at St. Mary’s Assumption Church
923 St. Josephine St.
March 18: 4-5 p.m.
March 19: 10:30 a.m.-noon
Devotions to St. Joseph, Mass and reception (dependent upon pandemic protocols).

2220 Washington Ave.
New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries sponsors an altar inside St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, on the cemetery’s South Liberty Street side.
March 19: Blessing at 10 a.m.; open for public viewing 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Visitors are invited to bring photos of deceased loved ones to place on the altar.

2729 Lowerline St.
March 19: Blessing after the 8 a.m. Mass; viewing until 4 p.m.
March 20: Reopens after the 7 a.m. Mass until after the 5 p.m. Mass.

Rock ‘n’ Bowl, 3016 South Carrollton Ave.
March 19: 1-5:30 p.m.
Donations by cash, check or credit card will be forwarded to the Ozanam Inn homeless shelter.

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