The Tradition of St. Joseph’s Altar

Claudia Dickson, VOX Reporter

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The tradition of the St. Joseph Altar began several centuries ago in Sicily, an island off the southern coast of Italy, when a severe famine caused suffering and starvation.  As St. Joseph is the protector of the family, the farmers turned to him in prayer for intercession.

The famine soon ended. In gratitude, the farmers honored St. Joseph by filling an altar with an abundance of food.  They ate some of the food, and the rest they gave to the poor. The tradition continues today.  St. Joseph is still the patron of peace, a happy home, and charity to the poor throughout the Catholic Church.  His feast day, on March 19th, is observed by other ethnic cultures, although the Sicilian tradition is the most elaborate.


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  • St. Joseph Altars of today are still presented in keeping with the ancient tradition the Sicilians brought to this country. We ask St. Joseph to intercede for us and we honor him with a celebration of food, friendship, and thanksgiving.

  • In keeping with tradition, flowers, fish, fruit, vegetables, and wheat products in the form of decorative breads and pastries are placed on the Altar along with statues and candles.

  • According to custom, once the parish priest has blessed the Altar and the food and the celebration begins!

  • Children representing the Holy Family are seated and served first and then the Guests follow.

  • Another common food that is served is pasta with a traditional tomato, fennel, and cauliflower sauce sprinkled with breadcrumbs. These breadcrumbs symbolize the wood chips would have come from St. Joseph’s work as a carpenter.

  • Anyone who has brought written intentions leaves them on the Altar.

  • Those who wish to can make an offering, which is given to charity and all guests are given a bag containing a holy card, a metal, and three fava beans before they leave. The fava beans have special special significance for they alone out of the many sicilian crops had not failed during the famine. For this reason the fava bean became a symbol of good luck throughout the year.

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