Sister Ann Marie Wainright – An Ode to Papa Joe

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Sister Ann Marie Wainright – An Ode to Papa Joe

St Joseph Day CakesWhen I first became an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion in 2005, I served at a privately owned hospital in uptown New Orleans. During my orientation at the hospital, I met an elderly religious of the Sisters of the Holy Family. She prayed over me at the start of my ministry and then shared with me her devotion to St. Joseph, whom she called “Papa Joe.”In New Orleans it is commonplace to see the Feast of St. Joseph celebrated with a St. Joseph’s Day Altar. It was all a part of growing up Catholic in New Orleans, and St. Joseph’s Day Altars were something I took for granted. I thought everyone knew about them! So imagine my surprise when I moved to Duluth and found out my fellow sisters knew nothing about St. Joseph Altars!When I did a little digging, I realized why. The St. Joseph’s Day Altar is a tradition that began in Sicily and took root in New Orleans when Sicilians came to America. While immigrants from Naples sailed mostly to New York, Sicilian immigrants settled in New Orleans. In the 19th century, New Orleans had the highest concentration of Sicilians of anyplace in the United States! The St. Joseph Altar was passed down through the generations of those with Italian ancestry and eventually became part of the overall Catholic culture of New Orleans.The tradition began in Sicily with a severe drought that destroyed all the crops of the farmers. They pleaded to St. Joseph, their patron, to bring relief and break the famine. Eventually the rains came, and the land once again yielded an abundant harvest. To show gratitude to St. Joseph, the people made an altar to St. Joseph in their home, making an offering from their harvest which was later distributed to the poor.Because St. Joseph’s feast is during Lent, you will often find fish on the altar, as well as a pasta dish with a non-meat sauce. There are also a variety of ornate breads in the shape of carpenter’s tools, a cross, the Sacred Heart and other symbolic shapes. Decorated cakes, Italian cookies, bottles of wine, lemons and olives are also found on the altar. Prayer cards for St. Joseph are given to people who visit the altar, as well as a fava bean. The fava bean is believed to bring good luck because the fava bean was one of the few crops that survived the drought and sustained the Sicilian people during the famine.I look forward to celebrating St. Joseph’s special feast day “Benedictine style” this year. But who knows…maybe one day in the future, my New Orleans cultural perspective might bring something special to the celebration of this feast. I think “Papa Joe” would be proud!

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