As happens every year at this time in Gretna, preparations for St. Joseph’s Day Altars are in the last heated stages as St. Joseph Church and Shrine and St. Cletus Church volunteers cook, bake and decorate for the two large, popular events.
Public take notice! The Gretna Altars will happen, on Friday, March 19, one at St. Joseph’s and one at St. Cletus, but in a very different venue than usual. St. Joseph’s is having a “Walk-thru” Altar, while St. Cletus will offer a “Drive-thru” version. Locals can still enjoy the popular tradition in a pandemic-safe way.
These wonderful events, steeped in Sicilian tradition are cultural experiences that the entire community enjoy and appreciate. There is no charge to view or dine at the Altars. Catholics use these extraordinary displays to honor St. Joseph who, in the Middle Ages sent rain to save starving people in Sicily from a severe drought. Thankful Sicilians later paid it back by using their finest crops to feed the poor, a display of food and faith that continues today.
St. Joseph Church will begin the St. Joseph holiday by honoring its patron namesake with a solemn Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond at 10 a.m. in the church at 610 Sixth St. All are welcome.
Doors will be open at the Altar location, corner of 7th and Newton Streets from 12 – 4 p.m. Food service is take-out only. There will be no table service.
Candles and other religious articles in the Gift Shop will be available and the Restoration group will introduce the new SJ “Belltower” ornament handcrafted by artist Katie Baldwin. Of course, there will be decorated Mother Church Cookbooks that make awesome Easter gifts!
On March 18, the eve of the Altar, there will a Rosary and Prayer Service at 6 p.m. followed by an Altar viewing only until 7:30 p.m. at the Altar location.
Members of the St. Joseph Women’s Club that produces the Altar started baking and cooking in January with up to 30 volunteers four days a week. Carol Weathers is the main chef for the meatless Milanese gravy that is the main entrée at true Sicilian Altars, since meat is never served on Altars.
Russell Kospelich and Louis Dieterich are very involved in the setup of the Altar, as well as helping with baking and cooking. Mike Giglio, Marlin Manuel and Willie Rigney help with the baking.
Knights of Columbus Council 1905 members have been assisting with cooking pasta since 1983. Usually they batter and fry huge amounts of catfish, but fish is not on this year’s menu.
“Instead of the normal bountiful meal at St. Joseph’s, this year’s Altar menu will only include pasta with Milanese gravy, two different vegetable casseroles, bread and cake for dessert,” longtime Decoration Chair Emily Gegenheimer said.
“As guests leave St. Joseph’s, they will be given a take-out plate of blessed food and a bag of assorted Italian cookies, a “lucky” bean, a piece of blessed bread and a St. Joseph prayer card. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, guests must wear a mask and practice social distancing.
‘Vieni a mangiare e gustare,’ come and eat and enjoy,” she said.
St. Cletus Church located at 3600 Claire Ave. in Gretna is offering a different take on their annual Altar. They are inviting the public to come for a drive-thru St. Joseph Day Altar on Friday, March 19 from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
“When you participate in our St. Joseph Altar Drive-thru, we will have an Altar for you to enjoy seeing that will be set up outside in the back parking lot behind Jerome Hall. Please have petitions made out ahead of time to not slow down the line of cars,” longtime Altar Director Bill Landry said.
“After you view the Altar, you will receive bagged cookies with a fava bean and blessed bread for a donation. We will also have for a $5 donation, a bag of sesame seed cookies. Blessed candles will also be offered for a $3 donation,” he said.
This delicious and beautiful custom, La Tavola di San Giuseppe, came to New Orleans in the 1800’s as immigrants formed what is still the largest Sicilian population in the country. St. Joseph is known to Catholics worldwide as the patron saint of fathers, families and workers. People seek his intercession when unemployed.
Since Altars were held to thank St. Joseph for relieving hunger, offerings of food are essential. Cookies, cakes and decorative breads are usually common decorations.
Fava beans, called “lucky beans” are associated with St. Joseph Day because favas that were usually fed to animals sustained the Sicilians during the famine. Beans received at Altars are carried in purses and pockets year-round for good luck.
In this 2021 “Year of St. Joseph,” promulgated by Pope Francis on the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s 1870 declaration of St. Joseph as the Universal Patron of the Church, St. Joseph is being widely prayed to and studied.
“Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde institutes this Year of St. Joseph and we, in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, joined it with the Year of the Eucharist, which was already set in motion here. When Covid hit, people began to hunger more for the Eucharist and Mass,” St. Joseph Church Pastor Rev. Gary Copping explained.
“St. Joseph not only shows men, husbands and fathers what true fatherly love is in an earthly sense, but he also shows how God the Father loves us and shows us how we are to be spiritual men, husbands and fathers to all the people in our lives. St. Joseph is to be our role model in a world that is trying to diminish the meaning of manhood, marriage, fatherhood and family life. St. Joseph’s life should also be an example for women to hold men accountable, to always be the best men, fathers, husbands, sons and brothers in which God has created us to be.
“Joseph is not Jesus’s biological father; but he is more ‘father’ and ‘dad’ than many men who ‘donate’ an ‘X or Y’ chromosome and never see or care for their child ever again. Joseph made a choice and said ‘yes’ to God, a ‘yes’ to Mary, and a ‘yes’ to being a father to Jesus. Jesus was not an obligation, but a gift to and for St. Joseph. If only all men could be like St Joseph,” Father Gary said.
The amazing volunteers who kept this wonderful St. Joseph Day Altar tradition alive in our Gretna community deserve a sincere “Thank You” for so much devotion. It was very hard for those who baked and prepared food while having to wear a mask and socially distance. Bless them. Please be generous when you make a monetary donation at any Altars and have a blessed, great day!