Come to the (St. Joseph) Table: Feasts Overflow With Food and Faith

The tradition originated in medieval Sicily about a thousand years ago.

At St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, Catholics enjoy the feast-day festivities.
At St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, Catholics enjoy the feast-day festivities. (photo: St. John Cantius photo)

Festive tables overflow with colorful foods, ranging from pastas, breads and desserts, to a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, most of which have a traditional connection to Italy.

At every Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19, or a day close to it, churches, organizations and private homes honor the Noble Offspring of David and celebrate after Mass with visits to eye-catching and mouth-watering St. Joseph Tables. 

This tradition began in Sicily and arrived in the United States in the mid-19th century, when the first immigrants from that largest island in the Mediterranean emigrated, landing first in New Orleans. There, the tradition of the St. Joseph Table, also known as the St. Joseph Altar, took root, eventually spreading throughout the country as Sicilians fanned out to cities like Chicago and New York and states including Kansas and Texas. In the great melting pot of America, the tradition expanded. Now, people of many nationalities join in the festive St. Joseph Altar celebrations.

Naturally, Louisiana has many parishes following the tradition. St. Joseph Church and Shrine in Gretna, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans, draws upward of 1,500 people to its St. Joseph Table. People find similar St. Joseph Altar celebrations around the country, such as at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago and Christ the Redeemer Church in Houston, where more than 400 faithful attend a dinner, not counting a few thousand more who come to view the elaborate table filled with traditional foods and colorful decorations.


What’s on the Table

Wherever the place, tradition calls for the tables, or “altars,” to have three tiers to represent the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph is placed on the top tier to honor the saint of the day. He is represented alone or holding the Christ Child. Many altars have extra tables added to form a cross and to hold all the glorious food and decorations, most of which are specially made food items. 

Tables range from the simple to the very elaborate. Flowers, especially lilies associated with St. Joseph’s purity, smaller statues, holy cards, wine recalling the wedding feast at Cana, and loaves of bread baked in symbolic shapes associated with the feast nearly spill over the table’s edges. Normally, a priest blesses the table once it is completed.


Sicilian Origin 

The St. Joseph Table originated in medieval Sicily about a thousand years ago, when the local population was experiencing an especially devastating drought. Crops were ruined; fields turned to dust. Locked in such a severe famine, Sicilians turned to their island’s patron saint for help. They pleaded with St. Joseph to bring them relief. He answered their prayers and the rains came. Everyone rejoiced that they could again grow crops to feed the starving people and animals.

As a gesture to show St. Joseph how grateful they were for answering their fervent prayers, they built prayer altars, piling on them various foods, flowers, pastries and wine. One special item: fava beans, because that was the first crop to grow after the drought. The poor were especially invited. After thanking and honoring St. Joseph in this way, the food on the table was then given to the poor and those most in need. No one was ever turned away.

Thus was born the Tavola di San Giuseppe, the “Table of St. Joseph.” 

Over the centuries, the celebration has grown, with the tables/altars becoming more and more elaborate and lavish — but always including the humble fava beans.

St. John Cantius St. Joseph table
St. John Cantius celebrates St. Joseph.(Photo: Courtesy of St. John Cantius)


Don’t Forget the Bread or Sweets

As centerpieces, loaves of bread are works of art formed into many different shapes traditionally connected to the New Testament and specifically related to St. Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Among the most popular symbols are the St. Joseph’s staff, St. Joseph in profile and often with a cane (as if he were an old person), St. Joseph’s Purse as a prompt to give alms and food to the poor, carpenters’ tools, hearts representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Bambino or Baby Jesus, the Crown of Thorns, and a monstrance. Often a sheaf of wheat also becomes part of the table.

To remember that St. Joseph was a carpenter, breadcrumbs representing sawdust are used in various ways, such as sprinkled on top of the Pasta Milanese. 

One thing that’s missing is meat, because the celebration always falls in Lent.

Myriad cookies in various shapes and names form eye-catching piles on the tables, too. “The most important cookie we make is the cuccidati, a fig cookie; that’s from an original recipe,” said Emily Gegenheimer, who has been working on the St. Joseph Table for 40 years at St. Joseph Church and Shrine in Gretna, near New Orleans. 

St. Joseph Church and Shrine in Gretna, near New Orleans, enjoys the celebration.
The parishioners at St. Joseph Church and Shrine in Gretna, near New Orleans, enjoy the celebration.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

“We try to keep it as authentic as possible,” she told the Register. Another traditional cookie, or biscotti, features sesame seeds. Still others, an abundance of almonds. Some tables have various biscotti decorated in a rainbow of colors.

Among the traditional desserts are the ever-present cream-filled pastries, St. Joseph’s zeppole.


Additional Customs

Along with the thanksgiving to St. Joseph for his help from that first drought to today — including answers to prayers over the years — the table is also a place for petitions to him. People will write and leave prayer requests.

One unique custom that has developed along the way is to have a basket of lemons on the table to represent intentions for marriage and children. “If you’re having trouble having a baby, you take a lemon home and put it in your bedroom and you pray to St. Joseph,” Gegenheimer explained.

Gegenheimer shared a personal story. “My son and his wife were having trouble having a baby. I misunderstood the story and gave them three lemons. And they got three children [by adoption] in one year.”

At St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Metairie, Louisiana, Rick and Jeannie Redmann head the St. Joseph Altar Committee. He had a similar story to share. Among the foods on a recent table was a picture of a husband and bride in her wedding gown that they placed there in thanksgiving. The woman had taken one of the lemons the year before, seeking St. Joseph’s intercession for marriage.

They have not been the only ones. According to Rick Redmann, the daughter of the woman who preceded them in running the annual table similarly met her husband after seeking St. Joseph’s intercession — and they now have two children.

Because St. Joseph’s Day is a tradition for the entire family, children always come into the picture. In many places, they play the Holy Family, along with angels and saints, for a little ritual that shows them going from “door to door” looking for food and shelter until they reach the place with the St. Joseph Table and can partake of a meal. In Louisiana, it is called “Tupa Tupa,” Italian for “Knock, Knock.”

At Christ the Redeemer Church in Houston, Carolyn Smith, the chair of St. Joseph Altar Ministry, said the children accompanying Joseph, Mary and the Child Jesus “are dressed as the saints they choose. We give them a biography and holy card of their saint and a little St. Joseph statue as a gift to thank them for their participation.”

The St. Joseph Table at Christ the Redeemer parish in Houston
The St. Joseph Table at Christ the Redeemer parish in Houston(Photo: Courtesy photo)


Feast of Fellowship

Part of the St. Joseph Table celebration is to view the sumptuous and artistic array of foods and sweets, but also to take part in a meal. For instance, at St. Joseph Church and Shrine, the festivities on March 19 begin with a morning Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Then people will view the table and eat the free luncheon.

“We serve approximately 1,800,” Debbie Swiler said, adding that every visitor gets a bag containing “seven cookies, a St. Joseph holy card, a fava bean, and a little piece of bread.” Parishioners, including Swiler and Gegenheimer, have spent many weeks preparing and baking for this annual celebration.

The St. Joseph Table is also meant to inspire almsgiving and remembering the poor. Because the tables have perishable food, St. Joseph Church wraps breads, cookies and cakes and gives them all to charities. At Christ the Redeemer, Smith explained that people place their petitions in boxes or make a donation. They do charge the more than 400 people attending the meal at the luncheon, and that money goes to the parish outreach to assist needy people in northwest Houston because “our mission is to feed the poor and to assist the less fortunate,” she said. In the last three years, they have donated more than $15,000.

At St. Francis Xavier, where an average of 1,500 meals are served on St. Joseph’s Day, the homeless who attend get extra help from the committee. Redmann said, “All the fresh food is packaged by the St. Joseph Altar Society and donated to 10 local charities.” On a side note, he said one year cookies were sold to raise funds for a new stained-glass window for the church.

St. Francis Xavier honors St. Joseph.
St. Francis Xavier parish in Metairie, Louisiana, honors St. Joseph.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Although these tables are done on a grand scale, people can make their own at home, following the same themes and symbolism. Smith suggests families prepare a small altar from items they already have and invite family and friends to celebrate.

Working on the altar is also a good time to pray to St. Joseph for family and friends, honor him and present your petitions to him. Smith sums up a major purpose of all the effort that goes into the St. Joseph Tables that draw so many people this way: “We concentrate on our main goal of bringing knowledge of St. Joseph and his intercession to everyone. That’s what we work for.”