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Sherry Simon (from left), grandson Noah Simon, husband George Simon and Jill Miller read through Sicilian and Italian recipes March 2 at Christ the King in Little Rock’s Family Life Center. The baked goods will be placed on the St. Joseph altar for an Italian celebration of St. Joseph’s feast day March 19. (Katie Zakrzewski) (Left to right) Roz Rector, Mike Kelley and Janie Kelley sift flour as they prepare ingredients for baking March 2 at the Christ the King Family Life Center in Little Rock. (Katie Zakrzewski) Janie and Mike Kelley read copies of recipes from Mike’s family cookbook before Italian Club members arrive March 2 at the Christ the King in Little Rock Family Life Center. (Katie Zakrzewski) Sherry Simon smiles as she puts a tray of spice cookies into the oven of the Family Life Center at Christ the King in Little Rock March 2. The spice cookies, called “Connie’s Spice Cookies” in Mike Kelley’s family cookbook, contain ingredients such as cloves and vanilla. (Katie Zakrzewski) Roz Rector places sesame seed cookies called “Dead Man’s Bones” on a tray to be placed in the oven. The dough is “rolled into the thickness of a man’s thumb, cut into two inches” and rolled in toasted sesame seeds before baking. A note on the recipe says, “These take a lot of luck and something we don’t get a lot of in Louisiana — dry weather.” (Katie Zakrzewski) Italian club members mix and knead the dough before cutting and rolling it into various shapes before baking at the Christ the King Family Life Center in Little Rock March 2. (Katie Zakrzewski) Volunteers make a chocolate variant of the spice cookies from Mike Kelley’s family cookbook March 2 in the Christ the King Family Life Center in Little Rock. (Katie Zakrzewski) Janie Kelley and Roz Rector cut the dough used to make “Dead Man’s Bones” cookies into two inches, with the “thickness of a man’s thumb” March 2 in the Christ the King Family Life Center in Little Rock. (Katie Zakrzewski) After being rolled in toasted sesame seeds and placed in the oven for 12-16 minutes, dozens of the “Dead Man’s Bones” cookies are placed on a sheet to cool. The treats will adorn the St. Joseph altar at Christ the King Church in Little Rock March 19. (Katie Zakrzewski)

LR Italian club bakes sweet treats for St. Joseph’s day

Central Arkansas parish club honors heritage, religious tradition by baking goodies

Published: March 5, 2024      
Members of Christ the King Church in Little Rock’s Italian Club make Italian goodies from scratch March 2. Participants baked recipes from parishioner Mike Kelley’s personal family cookbook to decorate the St. Joseph altar March 19. (Katie Zakrzewski)

Italian rock music blared from a speaker in the Family Life Center of Christ the King Church in Little Rock on the morning of March 2. 

Around a dozen parishioners — with last names like Volpi, Morello and Bertasi — gathered to bake Italian sweets in preparation for the feast day of St. Joseph, March 19, in between snack breaks to try Mike Kelley’s fava bean soup. 

The Italian Club at Christ the King was created in 2019, with the year of St. Joseph around the corner.

“In 2019, before the beginning of the year of St. Joseph in 2020, then-Father Erik Pohlmeier had wanted to do something for the feast day of St. Joseph,” said parishioner Janie Kelley, wife of Mike Kelley. “And he knew about the St. Joseph’s altar, which is a very Italian thing, and my husband was big into doing that. He’s from New Orleans, so they have St. Joseph altars.”

Several Italian parishioners had gathered to eat Kelley’s pasta and were contemplating ways to honor St. Joseph. That’s when Roz Rector, a Christ the King parishioner and wife of Deacon Mike Rector, had an idea. 

“We were eating pasta and talking about being Italian and how cool this was, and I said, ‘We should start an Italian club — the Christ the King Italian Club,’” Rector said. “That’s how we started. … We started reaching out to all of the people we knew at the parish who were Italian, and it started by eating Mike (Kelley)’s pasta.” 

Soon the club had nearly 15 members. Mike Kelley, a New Orleans native whose mother’s family is Italian and often cooked using recipes written in Italian, shared an idea for a St. Joseph altar. 

St. Joseph altars started several centuries ago in Sicily during a severe drought and subsequent famine. 

“They asked for the intercession of St. Joseph, (whose feast day is) celebrated March 19, which is Father’s Day in Italy. They soon had an abundant crop of fava beans. And they grew like crazy. They literally survived off of fava beans. That’s why I’m making this,” Mike Kelley said, gesturing to the large simmering pot of fava bean soup. “This is part of it — it makes sense.”

Throughout the centuries, the Catholic tradition spread to New Orleans, an annual tradition Mike grew up around.  

“In New Orleans, the tradition is to take a fava bean in honor of surviving,” Mike said. “They have them on the altars, and you put them in your wallet. Half the people in New Orleans have a fava bean in their wallet. … I have memories of my great-grandmother doing St. Joseph altars, my grandmother did St. Joseph altars, my mom does them, my aunt does them, so we’ve been doing them for generations. But it’s a story of survival and thanks and asking for intercessions.”

Mike Kelley said on much larger St. Joseph altars, like the ones he grew up around, you can find a plethora of sweet and savory treats. 

“It’s basically supposed to be a cornucopia to show plenty,” he said. “They can be massive in New Orleans and other places that celebrate. A basic (altar) has cookies and cakes and breads, including ornamental breads and bread art. I’ve done a little bit of bread art with roses and crosses. Full altar versions have savory items as well, such as stuffed artichoke and baked fish, everything except for meat, so pescatarian everything.”

In New Orleans, unique traditions began to spring up. One tradition says if a young woman is able to steal a blessed lemon from a St. Joseph altar, she’ll be married by the next feast day of St. Joseph. Italian meals at some New Orleans parishes feed up to 1,600 hungry faithful. 

At Christ the King in Little Rock, the Italian Club is creating a three-tiered St. Joseph altar to represent the Trinity with the help of parishioner and woodworker Raymond Bertasi. The Italian Club — and all who are interested in helping — will be creating and decorating the altar March 16. 

The Italian Club doesn’t meet monthly yet but prefers to work on parish events year-round and as needed. 

“Deacon (Angelo) Volpi did a pasta-making class for us, and we’ve helped out with our sister parish, St. Francis (of Assisi Church in Little Italy), helping with the cleaning and serving during their Italian festival, so we’ve done that the last two years,” Janie said. “For Rexfest, a raffle prize for the highest bidder was an Italian dinner with the bishop at Deacon Mike Rector’s house. We all got together and cooked different Italian things and had a dinner for eight plus the bishop and Father Juan (Guido, pastor) — it was a fun night.”

“The Church is a home for various ethnic groups who like to celebrate their traditions based on the liturgical celebration of the Church,” Father Guido said. “The tradition of having a St. Joseph altar allows people to work together, creating a close community while enabling them to learn more about the culture they share. It gives us an opportunity to break bread with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And, let us be — honest who does not like to attend Mass and to share sweet treats?”

Janie said several senior Italian parishioners have also donated tablecloths to help with decoration, embracing a chance to remember their roots. 

“Some people feel like they should have a stronger connection to their heritage than they actually do,” Mike said. “They feel like they should know how to do something, but if they don’t, they’re less Italian … I’ve got loads of people who want to know how to make homemade pasta or fresh bread, and if they can’t do that, they feel like someone should have taught them. And we get to share that with them.”

The St. Joseph altar is part of a larger plan the Italian Club has for the parish in March. 

Deacon Volpi, a native Italian who moved to the United States in 2007, said an Italian Mass and dinner are planned for March 19.

“This year, we decided to approach it by helping our congregation connect on three different levels — volunteering, prayer and worship,” he said. “Hopefully, that will help people who may be more drawn to volunteer and cook. We have a prayer component with a novena that starts March 10 … and then we have the worship component.

“It will be a bilingual Mass in Italian and English (at 5 p.m. March 19). … Some readings will be in Italian, the ‘Our Father’ will be in Italian, the Sign of Peace will be in Italian, so we want to facilitate that connection with the Italian heritage and the St. Joseph altar into a celebration that includes all of these components. We hope that people will find themselves drawn into these components … It’s great to come closer and be influenced by the spirit of St. Joseph.”

Deacon Volpi said in a world as impulsive as ours, St. Joseph reminds us to pause and reflect. 

“One thing that the spirit of St. Joseph can help us with is how he was open to listening to God,” he said. “When he found out that Mary was pregnant, his first thoughts were either divorcing silently or stoning her. But he paused. He didn’t act impulsively. That pause allowed him then to receive in a dream the message of God, and we want for us the same thing — to be able to pause so that we can hear God talking to us. Oftentimes, we react impulsively to things and it doesn’t allow for that openness to hear. To me, that is a really important grace I want to grow more from St. Joseph.” 

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