A St. Joseph’s Altar
This is another European tradition that some black people, particularly among the believers in the Spiritual Churches of New Orleans, have taken as their own. This cross-cultural borrowing happened when Italian immigrants themselves were at the bottom of the class and racial ladder along with New Orleans blacks. They lived in or next to each other’s communities. Some Italian Americans even intermarried with blacks. Unfortunately, the moment they became more accepted as Americans, the Italians took their places with the Irish as white people, as class and color distinctions were upheld.
Every altar is different in size but they do not differ in organization.
This photo came from Pia’s Nest:
St. Joseph’s Altars are Sicilian in origin. During a terrible famine, the people of Sicily pleaded to St. Joseph, their patron saint, for relief. St. Joseph answered their prayers, and the famine ended. In gratitude, they prepared a table with foods they had harvested. After paying homage to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
The Altar is set up in three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph is placed on the top tier, usually surrounded by flowers, greenery and fruit.
No meat is prepared for the Altar. This is probably because St. Joseph’s Feast falls in the Lenten Season and also because meat was a rarity to the Sicilian peasants. Breads, cakes and cookies, baked in symbolic Christian shapes, are prepared for the Altar. Pastries in the shapes of monstrances, chalices, crosses, doves, lambs, fish, bibles, hearts, wreaths and palms adorn the tiers of the Altar. Symbols of St. Joseph – such as lilies, staffs, sandals, ladders, saws, hammers and nails – are also used. There is symbolism in many of the items on the Altar. Breadcrumbs rerpresent the sawdust of St. Joseph the Carpenter. Twelve whole fish represent the apostles. Wine is symbolic of the Miracle at Cana.
The Altar is a medium of petition and thanksgiving. Petitions of the faithful are written on pieces of paper and placed in baskets on the Altar. Photos of deceased relatives and friends may decorate the Altar as well.
The Goodie Bag
Visitors to St. Joseph Altars are given small paper bags containing a few blessed items from the Altar. The bags usually contain a holy card and a small medal. Various cookies or small breads may also be in the bag.
The most interesting item found in the goodie bag is the fava bean. In Sicily, the fava was fodder for cattle. During a great famine the people resorted to eating them to survive. They were considered lucky to have favas to eat, hence the fava bean is also known as a “lucky bean.” Some believe that the pantry that contains a fava bean will never be bare. The fava, or lucky bean, serves as a token of the Altar – a reminder of God’s provisions through the intercession of St. Joseph.
This is from Gumbo Ya Ya, edited by Lyle Saxon and Robert Tallant, from their work with the Federal Writers’ Project, published in 1945. (A photograph of Mother Maude Shannon, whose work is quoted below, is here.)
Curious is the adoption of this Italian custom by New Orleans Negroes. The Item Tribune, March 17, 1940, announced: “Elaborate preparations have been made in the Negro spiritualist churches for St. Joseph’s Day. Among the churches taking part are the Saint Joseph Helping Hand Spiritualist, Algiers; the Eternal Love Christian Spiritualist, Clio Street; Saint James Temple No. 7, Felicity near Freret; Star of the East, Constantinople and Saratoga Streets; and Saint Paul No. 7, Saratoga near Thalia Street.”
Reverend Maude Shannon says it was a divine call that made her build the first Saint Joseph’s altar for Negroes fourteen years ago.
Reverend Shannon is head of an independent Negro church, the Daniel Helping Hand Mission, but her altars exhibit no radical departures from the ones of the Roman Catholic Italians, even including among the altar foods antipasto, Italian salads and pineapple cakes. Reverend Shannon indicated can after can of food, candy, fruit, bowls of potato salad and hard-boiled eggs split in half and stuffed with pickle and yellow egg yolks.
Though she won’t discuss it, there is a rumor that the money to pay for the Reverend Shannon’s altars is contributed by the gamblers in her section of the city. They come and get the lucky beans and leave money behind.
Some of the streets where these Spiritualist churches were located no longer exist. The ministers have died off, the overpass leading to the Super Bowl has flattened the churches (which were located in homes or storefronts), or Katrina got them. That is, Katrina finished them and they have been condemned or bulldozed.
The fact is that Mother Shannon doled out the food to the poor and the street children, no matter what color. If this episode is happening before 1940, and before the nation’s entry into World War II and the end of the Depression due to the war effort, there are many men, women and children who are happy to eat. St. Joseph represented the common working poor for whom a quarter was a fortune (in those days).