GRETNA, La. -- The minute you walk into the old school gym next to St. Joseph Church in Gretna, you see the devotion on display. The altar is one of the largest in town and represents months of work by volunteers.
“We start about six weeks ahead of time,” said volunteer Emily Gegenheimer. “We start with the casseroles - we made 150 this year - and then we do the cookies. To actually put the altar together takes maybe five or six days.”
The altar at St. Francis Xavier Church in Old Metairie rivals Gretna's in size and beauty. Around midday Wednesday, the room was packed with people leaving petitions to St. Joseph, offering donations in thanksgiving and admiring the elaborate display.
Nearby, volunteers served plates of food to visitors, who sat at tables and enjoyed the music of a strolling accordionist. The menu included Pasta Milanese (the traditional gravy made for Lent with no meat, just anchovies and tomato sauce).
But in addition to the large altars like those two, there are also smaller ones, in people's homes, like the Williams family Uptown. The family matriarch, Diane Williams, began the tradition 21 years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She had a strong will to live and said 'If you let me live, St. Joseph, I will have an altar in your honor,'” explained her daughter Donna. “And he gave her what she wanted and so she gave him what he wanted.”
And even now that Mrs. Williams is gone, her family keeps her promise. Members of the family work for weeks to bake and cook the food for the altar which is at the family home on Marengo St. Her husband A.J. constructs it and even built the small wooden kneeler that sits in front of it, offering a place for prayer.
“It means everything to us because it's a way of keeping our mom alive keeps her spirit with us,” said Donna Williams.
You could travel to 10 St. Joseph altars and you'd find no two exactly alike. All of them share a deep devotion to the saint who is beloved by local Italian-Americans and people of all faiths.
The tradition began in the Middle Ages, as Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph during a famine, and then thanked him for his intercession by constructing altars laden with foods, cookies and breads. Sicilians brought the tradition to New Orleans, where it continues.
You don’t have to be Sicilian or Catholic to be inspired by a St. Joseph's altar, as Archbishop Gregory Aymond explained after blessing the altar at the Old Ursuline Convent and St. Mary’s Italian Church, once the center of the French Quarter’s Italian community at the turn of the century.
“St. Joseph is the patron of the universal church and just as he was the foster father and the guardian of Jesus, we also see him as the guardian of us, the people of god,” Aymond said.
On Wednesday, St. Joseph’s feast day, those people came from all walks of life and even all faiths, sharing in a tradition started by the Sicilians.
“Our heritage is rich with natural flavor. We like to eat, we like to have fun and it goes through food,” said Mary Bose, a proud Italian-American and volunteer at St. Joseph Church in Gretna.