History of the St. Joseph Altar

The St. Joseph Altar is 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.heart

Home Altar, New Orleans, circa 1939

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 & 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 & friends decorate the Altar as well.

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. Don’t leave without yours!

“Of old it was said to the needy and suffering people in the kingdom of Egypt: ‘Go to Joseph, and do all that he should say to you.’ (Gen 41:55). The same is now said by the Sovereign Pontiff to all needy and suffering people in the kingdom of the Church: GO TO JOSEPH . . . What was truly said of the first Joseph, as to his future, and as to his goodness, his chastity, his patience, his wisdom, his influence with the king, his power over the people, and his love for his brethren, is verified much more perfectly, even to this day, in the second JOSEPH.”

Herbert Cardinal Vaughan
Archbishop of Westminster