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Reprising the St. Joseph Altar Tradition at BKH

Pictured left: BKH's first annual St. Joseph Altar displayed last year, March 17th and 18th, 2016.

In Bread and Respect, authors Jerome J. Salomone and A.V. Margavio write, of a conservatively estimated 32,000 Italian immigrants who settled in Louisiana between 1870-1930, an astounding 90% were Sicilian [1]. Today, 200,000 Sicilian descendants reside in the New Orleans area [2]. It is safe to assume therefore that many, if not most, of the the Italian traditions now practiced in New Orleans came not from the mainland, but the smaller, arid island of Sicily.

One of the more notable of these traditions is the St. Joseph Altar. Varying stories exist regarding the origin of the altar [3]: many scholars believe that Albanian refugees brought the practice to Sicily in the 15th century, while others credit a group of shipwrecked Italians who prayed to St. Joseph for deliverance and constructed an altar of thanks upon making landfall. The most widespread story remains, perhaps, the most simple. During a drought in the Middle Ages, starving Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph for rain to end their famine and when it was delivered, the tradition of offering a feast of thanks to the Saint was born.

In St. Joseph Altars, Kerri McCaffety notes that the St. Joseph Altar tradition is generally honored wherever a community of Sicilians or Sicilian descendants live [4]. In addition to Sicily itself, altars can be found all over the United States, especially in large cities where many immigrants settled. It is not surprising, given the sheer number of Sicilian descendants in New Orleans, that observation of the St. Joseph Altar is considered the most profound in the United States [5]. Even more fascinating is how the tradition has permeated throughout the culture of all New Orleanians. McCaffety writes that the Irish have embraced St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th) as an extension of their own St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and a number of African American churches have observed the altar tradition since the 1930s [6]. Likely since World War I, one of the city’s most major parade days of the year, Super Sunday, has been observed on St. Joseph’s Day: Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets to parade in their culturally singular and show-stopping, handmade costumes. [7]

A section in All This is Louisiana discussing the St. Joseph Altar Tradition. A grand altar is pictured left, and an unnamed participating child is pictured right.

The Beauregard-Keyes House’s namesake former homeowner, Frances Parkinson Keyes, appreciated the St. Joseph Altar tradition, and other Sicilian aspects of her neighborhood. In her 1950 book, All This is Louisiana, Mrs. Keyes writes: “I relish the wonderful cheeses that I get at Montalbano’s and the cassata that I get at Brocato’s… I feel privileged to live across the street from the old Ursuline Convent. In fact, I enjoy all the local celebrations. Outstanding among these is the commemoration of St. Joseph’s Day.” Mrs. Keyes notes the inviting aspect of the practice by detailing how each shop or home with an open altar is marked by "branches of fresh bay leaves, fastened" to the entryway. She continues with a detailed physical description of one of the many altars in the neighborhood and children participation in its blessing, noting the “fragrant flowers” and exquisite varieties of food, from mocha layer cakes and breads to artichokes and golden wine, which have been “prepared, over a period of weeks, lovingly and by hand.” [8]

Displaying a St. Joseph Altar offers practitioners the opportunity to give thanks for blessings, ask for deliverance from troubles, and bring community together in solidarity and tradition. In addition to food offerings for St. Joseph, many choose to display photos of past loved ones, and we look forward to paying tribute in this way to our house’s former Sicilian residents, the Giacona family, with portraits generously loaned to the museum by Corrado Giacona II.

There is likely no way to know if the Giaconas ever participated in the St. Joseph Altar tradition during their time in the house from 1904-1925, though docent Rosanna Giacona Shepherd does remember

her Aunt Marguerite’s altar from when she was growing up in New Orleans in the 1960s and 1970s. Rosanna’s family shared a double shotgun with her aunt and uncle on the other side, and Marguerite would devote “almost the whole house” to her altar, which family and friends would flock to see. Sicilian tradition has long-standing roots in our house here at 1113 Chartres, and we look forward to revisiting them next week with our second annual St. Joseph Altar.

Above right: One of the portraits to be displayed during the St. Joseph Altar, featuring Corrado Giacona and wife Rosena/Rosina Punzo Giacona. Corrado purchased the family home at 1113 Chartres and also ran the family business there with his father, Pietro. Portraits provided by Corrado Giacona II.

For more information about visiting the Beareugard-Keyes House St. Joseph Altar, please visit our Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1817974011792440/

1. Margavio, A. V., and Jerome J. Salomone. "Chapter Two: Bread." Bread and Respect: The Italians of Louisiana. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. 38,43. Print.

2. McCaffety, Kerri. “Across the Ocean: Sicily Arrives in New Orleans.” St. Joseph Altars. Gretna, LA: Pelican, Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. 19. Print.

3. McCaffety, Kerri. “Farmers or Fishermen, Exiles or Albanians: The Origin Legends.” St. Joseph Altars. Gretna, LA: Pelican, Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. 14-16. Print.

4. Ibid. 19.

5. Ibid. 19.

6. McCaffety, Kerri. “Cultural Crossover: Non-Sicilians Embrace the Old World Saint.” St. Joseph Altars. Gretna, LA: Pelican, Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. 24. Print.

7. "Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday around St. Joseph's Day." Mardi Gras New Orleans. Compucast Web, Inc.,1996-2017. Web. 9 Mar. 2017. <http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/supersunday.html>.

8. Keyes, Frances Parkinson. "St. Joseph's Altars." All This is Louisiana. Harper, 1950. 84-85. Print.

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