HOT SPRINGS — A statue of St. Joseph holding Jesus stood tall among a variety of foods, photos and mementos from around the world in the parish hall of St. Mary Church in Hot Springs.
In celebration of St. Joseph’s March 20 feast day, parishioners built a St. Joseph altar, an Italian tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages.
“It’s our parish coming together with our cultures as a family. That’s what the Holy Family represents,” said Lynn Pellegrino, who chaired the project. “What a great thing to do as we’re getting ready for Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. We’re on that road of discovery and giving our time.”
On March 16, students from nearby St. John School took part in a St. Joseph altar tradition, to reenact the Holy Family seeking shelter, known in Italian as “Tupa Tupa” meaning “Knock Knock.” Father George Sanders, pastor of St. Mary, and Father Chinnaiah Irudayaraj “Y.C.” Yeddanapalli, pastor of St. John, blessed the altar for public viewing until March 18.
“I enjoyed everything,” said 12-year-old Jacob Rivera, a seventh-grade St. John student who played Joseph. “I’m glad I got to do it, I feel honored.”
The tradition of the St. Joseph altar originated in Sicily in the Middle Ages when a famine plagued the people. Legend says as people died of starvation, the faithful prayed to St. Joseph and promised to build altars that would feed everyone who visited in thanksgiving for his intercession to end the famine. On his feast day, the rains came and generations of Italians have kept the tradition alive.
Pellegrino, of Italian heritage, saw a St. Joseph’s altar at St. Frances Xavier Parish in Metairie, La. The couple who coordinated the altar at the parish, Jack and Gail Silicano, spoke to parishioners at St. Mary in August about creating one.
“I think St. Joseph is somebody who gets lost,” Pellegrino said. “If he didn’t say yes to Mary, we wouldn’t have Jesus. When I looked up St. Joseph, he’s the patron saint of immigrants, families, a holy death. I never saw so many things a saint was known for. What a wonderful time to be doing this altar during Lent when we’re supposed to be giving of ourselves.”
One of the most important traditions of the altar is that it is all volunteer and not for profit. The Men of Mary organization constructed the three-tiered altar, representing the Trinity, using covered tables and plastic crates. The Hands of Mary, a women’s organization at the parish, and other parish groups baked more than 3,000 cookies. The youth ministry also assisted in the variety of homemade breads adorning the altar, with symbols like a staff representing St. Joseph.
The cookies, which represent charity and peace, were placed in goodie bags for each person who visited the altar, along with a St. Joseph prayer card and a fava bean. Also known as a “lucky bean,” it thrived during a severe Sicilian famine and legend says those who carry one will always have coins with them.
But the altar went beyond just food — it was a place for people to share their family with the whole parish, as photos and family heirlooms filled the altar. Parishioners were also invited to place petitions to St. Joseph, donations and memorial cakes in honor of deceased loved ones. Even though the altar has Italian roots, flags from Mexico, Colombia, Vietnam and other countries were on display along with Vietnamese cookies and Mexican candy and pottery.
“People in the parish can get to see stuff from another culture,” said Gladys Gonzalez, who was in charge of diversity inclusion when decorating the altar. She and her husband Vincente donated the St. Joseph statue from Mexico to use on the altar. “It was a good project to bring everyone together.”
A free Italian dinner was held March 19 for St. Mary parishioners, and any leftover food, goodie bags and all the food on the altar were to be donated to local charities.
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