St. Joseph’s altars: What they mean and where to find them

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The altar at St. Joseph Catholic Church

The St. Joseph’s altar is one of those Catholic traditions, in this case a Sicilian Catholic tradition, that, through some very creative adaption, south Louisiana has made its own.

Among all the breads and cakes shaped into religious symbols — a monstrance, chalice, cross, heart, dove, Bible — it’s not unusual to find an alligator. A Lenten symbol, perhaps.

The fava bean is also ubiquitous at New Orleans altars. Blessed dried 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). Baskets of colorful gilded beans are placed on the altars. Green fava beans are sometimes served in frittata or with garlic sauce at the St. Joseph’s Day meal.

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A St. Joseph’s altar is incomplete without fava beans, considered a good luck charm.

The fava bean is credited with saving Sicilians from starvation during a severe drought in the Middle Ages, a drought that St. Joseph is credited with ending through divine intervention. Together, they alleviated hunger and saved Sicilian lives.

The altars originated in Sicily as an offering to St. Joseph, thanking him for that intervention. Yet a researcher at Louisiana State University found no evidence of fava beans in the Sicilian altars. 

In the imaginative and enthusiastic hands of Sicilian immigrants in Louisiana, new rituals developed for the traditional symbol.

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

St. Joseph’s altars are always laden with symbolism. 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.

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 with bread in the shape 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.

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Bread is shaped into St. Joseph’s staff.

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, linked to fidelity in the Catholic faith, may be 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 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.

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A St. Joseph’s altar inside a private home.

St. Joseph’s Day is Sunday (March 19). Below you can find some altars in Uptown neighborhoods, from a list compiled by the Archdiocese of New Orleans

Altars can also be found in private homes (often indicated by a sago palm leaf above the door) as well as businesses. If you know of an altar not on this list, please leave the information in a comment to this story.

Once the altars are broken down, the food is delivered to needy families in the parish. And the donations received go to charity — so bring cash when you visit an altar. Some locations also serve a mid-day meal.

Visitors traditionally receive a swag bag with a prayer card, a lucky fava bean, some cookies and dried bread. Go ahead and eat the cookies, but save the dried bread to toss into your yard when a hurricane is in the Gulf, calling on St. Joseph to protect your home (board up your windows, too). Another very south Louisiana tradition.

Cupcakes are brought as offerings to St. Joseph.

St. Alphonsus Parish at St. Mary’s Assumption Church
2030 Constance St.
Saturday, March 18: Blessing and viewing of the altar, 3-4 p.m.
Sunday, March 19: Mass and devotion to St. Joseph, 10:30 a.m. Reception to follow Mass.

St. Joseph Cemetery No. 1
2220 Washington Ave.
New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries sponsors an altar inside the St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, on the cemetery’s South Liberty Street side.
Saturday, March 18: Blessing at 10 a.m.; open for public viewing 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Visitors are invited to bring photos of deceased loved ones to place on the altar.

Loyola University New Orleans
Danna Student Center (by the Starbucks)
Monday, March 20: 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Blessing at noon. 

St. Rita Catholic Church
2729 Lowerline St.
Saturday, March 18: Blessing after 8 a.m. Mass; viewing until 5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 19: Viewing 6 a.m.-6 p.m.

Rock ‘n’ Bowl
3016 S. Carrollton Ave.
Sunday, March 19, noon-5 p.m.
Donations will be forwarded to Ozanam Inn.

Candles on an altar represent St. Joseph, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

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