A three-tiered altar will sit at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Wednesday. Candles, decorative bread, pasta and a myriad of other symbols, will surround an icon of St. Joseph. The altar is a place for prayer and giving to the needy, a place for feasting and fellowship.
Central Texans are no strangers to drought, but it’s safe to say that hardly has lack of rain been so hard on a community as one terrible famine was on Sicily in the Middle Ages. Crops were dying and the struggling Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph to intercede for rain.
These rains came and Sicily was delivered from the drought. The people brought offerings of food together and shared with those in need. Thus the tradition of St. Joseph Altar began.
St. Jospeh altars are typically utilized on St. Joseph’s Feast Day, which according the Sicilians is March 19. The tradition followed large groups of Italian Catholic immigrants to America and is still observed where large Sicilian or Italian communities live, such as New Orleans, parts of California and Chicago.
Not many in Central Texas know about the St. Joseph Altar and this will be St. Mary’s Catholic’s first year presenting the tradition to the community.
Linda Bayhi played a big part in bringing the tradition from where she used to live in New Orleans. From the time she was a teenager, Bayhi had attended St. Joseph Altars. At her previous home in New Orleans, she displayed her own St. Joseph Altar for seven years.
Hurricane Katrina took her home like it did many others. In the aftermath, Bayhi moved to Texas. She bounced the idea of a St. Joseph Altar at St. Mary’s for a couple years, but it wasn’t until recently that the idea got a spark from one of the deacons at the church. It was quickly approved by St. Mary’s priest, NAME, and preparations were begun.
But starting a tradition in a community that knew little about it comes with a few hurdles. For one, participation has been good but not overwhelming. Parishioners don’t yet have a clear idea of what the St. Jospeh Altar looks like in action. Some of the special food supplies were no where to be found nearby, so Bayhi and Paula Thrift, another organizer of this first altar, had to make a trip to New Orleans and Bayhi’s roommate.
Thrift grew up Protestant but had a desire to join the Catholic church for a long time. Just recently, she officially joined the Catholic faith. Thrift has had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans several times to see different St. Joseph Altars.
Bayhi is hopeful that knowledge of the tradition will grow in the community and involvement will increase with each passing year.
“You don’t have to go big and bold,” she said. “It’s not how much you use but the thought behind it.”
A private ‘Saints Dinner’ will be held before the public feasting at the altar. Church members will represent saints at the meal, which will be taken in complete silence.
The altar will be adorned with decorative St. Joseph’s bread cooked in the shape of different crosses and sandals. Pineapples, a traditional symbol of hospitality, will be set on the altar. There will also be a green branch above the door, indicating that the public is welcome to share in the food. No meat will be served as St. Joseph’s feast day falls during the season of Lent, observed by abstaining from meat in many Catholic traditions.
Each guest will be given a bag containing a fava bean, a symbol of good fortune, and a blessed pocket-sized card depicting St. Joseph. Visitors will also have an opportunity to write petitions and prayer requests on cards. At the closing of the ceremony, these cards will be burned, sending the prayers toward heaven.
The message of the St. Joseph Altar is sharing with those less fortunate. According to tradition, all the food that goes toward the altar is received by “begging,” which means it is obtained by donations. Other donations received during the day will go to the church and distributed to those in the congregation in need of financial help.
“The entire concept is serving others who are less fortunate,” said Thrift.
“The purpose is to feed and fellowship,” said Donna Shepard, a coordinator for the event.
The altar is open and free to the public. Non-Catholics are more than welcome.
“We hope this takes off,” said Bayhi. “It makes no difference what nationality you are. I’m hoping curiosity gets to them and makes them come out to see what it’s all about. I’m glad people here in Texas are taking an interest. The satisfaction is in carrying on the tradition.”