Information about the St. Joseph's Altar

The following is an excerpt from "La Festa di San Giuseppe" by Elizabeth Butler Moore and Cappie Musso Tavary, copyright 1989:


Remember, O most pure spouse
of the
Blessed Virgin Mary,
My sweet protector, St. Joseph,
To your protection,
Or implored your aid
Without obtaining relief.

Confiding therefore in your goodness,
I come before you
And humbly supplicate you.

O, despise not my petitions,
Foster father of our Redeemer,
But graciously receive them.


The St. Joseph's Altar is a Sicilian tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Sicily is a rocky island with erratic weather conditions which brought either droughts or torrential rains. The Sicilians' mere existence was a daily struggle. A lengthy famine seized the island and the dry, cracked earth yielded no life giving crops. The starving farmers had only their deep faith remaining. They prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of Italy, to intercede to God for them.
Their prayers were answered as a gentle rains fell to fill dry wells and streams and give birth to crops. Even coastal fishermen pulled in abundant catches where there had been no fish. These poor farmers and fishermen wanted to pay homage to St. Joseph for answering their prayers. Since their very being was dependent on a fruitful harvest and the yield from the sea, they decided to offer these, their most valuable possessions to St. Joseph. An altar was constructed and foods that were common became elaborately decorated feasts for the eye as well as the palate.
Even though at times it was a great sacrifice, the tradition continued as a labor of love and devotion on the feast day of St. Joseph, March 19th. At first the altars were erected in family homes, usually in thanksgiving for favors granted, such as deliverance from the ravages of war or the healing of body or spirit of a loved one. When the Sicilians emigrated to the United States over a century ago, they brought this custom with them. These altars flourished in the New Orleans areas where the tradition continues today.


The Bethlehem story is re-enacted at the St. Joseph's Altar. Children are chosen to represent Jesus, Mary and Joseph, favorite saints and angels. As Joseph sought shelter for his Mary by knocking on doors many years ago, the "saints" knock (tupa-tupa) on three doors. At the first two homes they are turned away, but at the third door they are warmly welcomed with the words, "Whatever I have is yours. Come and eat at my table." The "saints" are then led to the altar table which is set with the finest linen, china, silver, and crystal. They are reverently served and the children and visitors remain quiet during this contemplative period.

Jesus opens the ceremony by cutting the bread that is to be eaten by the "saints". St. Joseph is always served first, and tradition denotes the order in which the courses are presented. With the exception of the pasta, there are always three portions of the same food on each plate, symbolizing the Three Persons in the Blessed Trinity and the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Orange segments and other fruits begin the feast, followed by bread, Pasta Milanese with Mudica, seafood, vegetables, cookies, desserts, as well as water and wine. Before the "saints" begin eating each of the courses, they must listen for the words "Mangiate, santos dolces."
(Eat, sweet saints.) At the close of the ceremony, the saints are given one of the symbolic breads to remind them of their participation. Jesus takes the cross, Mary the palm or the heart and Joseph the staff or the beard. The altar is then "broken" and the guests are invited to partake of this special meal.

--Courtesy of Rosalie Lucido


O holy St. Joseph,
Through the silence of the ages
Please speak for us.
Gather up our petitions
And present them to Jesus,
God the Son,
Who will deny His earthly father
O holy St. Joseph,
Place your hands on our shoulders,
And be with us and guide us
In our daily tasks.
And at the hour of our deaths,
May our souls open
Like petals of a flower
To the glories of Paradise
And you take us by the hand,
And lead us
To your Holy Family. Amen.