Soon, if not already, fig biscuits, lemons and broad beans will adorn piebald St. Joseph’s altars in local Catholic churches to celebrate the saint’s feast day.
The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, when the people of Sicily commemorated the end of famine caused by drought. The islanders attributed the plentiful rain and harvest to prayers to St. Joseph, and a celebration became a tradition.
People provided the altars with grain, fish, sweets, flowers, meatless Sicilian dishes, and religious articles to give thanks for Saint Joseph’s intercession. Sicilian immigrants brought the custom to Louisiana, and it is celebrated near St. Joseph’s Day.
“The Italian connection here in southern Louisiana is why (the tradition) is so prevalent here. I think it’s culturally significant to our area,” said Chris Redden, the pastoral assistant at St. Joseph’s Cathedral at Baton Rouge.
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Redden said he’s received a plethora of calls from parishioners in preparation for the tradition. This year he is preparing for about twice the number of people the cathedral normally has at the 10:30 am mass.
A St. Joseph altar traditionally contains a statue or image of St. Joseph and traditional items such as Italian biscuits, bread, broad beans, artichoke balls, lemons and assorted cakes.
Kathryn Lewis, the owner of Maxwell’s Market, will be at 7620 Corporate Blvd on Monday, March 20 from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. host a St. Joseph altar in Baton Rouge.
Lewis started the tradition in business in March 2020, but she’s been celebrating the tradition with her husband for years since both sides of his family are Sicilian, she said. This year, their in-store altar will feature a blessed statue of St. Joseph and traditional items such as Italian biscuits, bread, broad beans, artichoke balls, lemons and assorted cakes.
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Citrus fruits are common on St. Joseph altars, but lemons have special symbolism. Tradition says that if you steal a lemon from the altar, you will find a man or woman. Broad beans, on the other hand, are a symbol of good luck.
“There was a famine in Sicily, so they prayed to St. Joseph. Rain came and the field beans grew,” said Lewis. “They say if you carry broad beans in your purse or your pocket, you’ll never be without money.”