He is sweating in the morning sun, easily turning a huge table top over in a cloud of wood shavings. I cough but he doesn’t break his concentration, only smiles as he measures an edge with his hands, squinting, nodding to himself as he stands up.
“You still do this kind of thing in Heaven?”
“It’s what I prefer to do.”
I watch him work for a long time, admiring his focus and graceful movements.
I begin to understand an invisible meaning in all he does, in all we ourselves do when we work with devotion. But this is St.Joseph. The spiritual effect of his work is touching each of his children on earth, lifting them up, assisting all by his solidarity, and his prayerful work.
His beautiful wife, Mary brings him a cold cup of water, some bread and some goat cheese. She smiles at me, and so does the little one on her hip, before going back to the house to attend to her own duties.
St. Joseph kicks off his sandals, sets down his tools, washes his face and hands in a basin of water in the corner, and sits down in the wood shavings on the floor with me, grinning. He breaks off bread and cheese for me, and offers me some of his water. He blesses our lunch.
“Preparations are underway for your altars in Bryan and College Station,” I say.
He smiles. “Yes, we are getting ready to visit them.”
“You’re all going?”
“We always do.”
He tells me about the terrible drought his children in Sicily experienced long ago, and how they pleaded with him for his prayers and intercession. He had been very moved.
“I prayed very much about it. And then I knew what to do.” He describes it as if it were a mechanical problem. I don’t understand it anymore than I understand anyone else when they describe a mechanical problem. But I love it, and it makes me laugh. I imagine him taking his tools, fixing something inside a cloud, maybe, to make it rain.
His children in Corleone and Poggioreale had been intensely grateful. Their gratitude lead to the first St. Joseph altar in thanksgiving, covered with food from the harvest, and symbols of the Holy Family. There were celebrations, feasting, all were welcome, and food was given to the poor. “They are faithful children. They never forget.”
I can tell he is touched as he describes the people’s remembrances from generation to generation, and how they grew in the love of God and of one another through their devotion, their creativity, generosity, cooperation, and service to the poor. St. Joseph is a proud father. Proud of his ingenious, hard working and faithful children.
He too is faithful. And when some of them sailed to Texas in 1880 from Corleone and Poggioreriale in Sicily to find a better life in Bryan, he and his family kept a close watch on them, helped them, prayed for them, protected them at every turn. He loves them very much.
We sit in silence together after we have eaten our light meal, and I can sense the power of his inner prayer.
Then he stands up to resume his work. “See you there.” He says.
I was able to visit one local couple who enjoy hosting a “small” St. Joseph alter every year, Lilly Scarmardo Hughes and her husband, Tom, a few days before the celebration.
The altar looked wonderful. Many of the breads and cookies had already been prepared, and several of the traditional items were already laid out. Sometime in the days before the celebration, Msgr. McCaffrey will come and bless the altar.
Friends and family had already begun to cook and bring things over for the big day.
During the food preparations the morning of the celebration, the rosary is sung in Italian. It is a happy scene of mostly women laughing and chatting and working in the kitchen.
Everything on the altar has meaning. The most important symbols are the three tiers of the alter, representing the Holy Family, and the Blessed Trinity. At the top of any St.Joseph altar will be either a statue or a painting of St. Joseph or of the Holy Family. At the top of this altar is a beautiful icon of the Holy Family actually blessed by Pope Francis in Rome on one of the couple’s trips to Italy.
There are a minimum of three breads in symbolic shapes that represent Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Here there is a cross for Jesus, a rosary shape for Mary, and a hammer for St. Joseph. Fruits and vegetables adorn the altar, representative of gratitude to God and to St. Joseph for his intercession. There is wine to represent the Wedding of Cana.
Another pastry often served is a fried dough covered with sugar, then shaken into a “haystack” to represent pine cones for the little Jesus to play with.
There will be a profusion of intricately carved fig cookies called cuccidatti, a dish of fava beans which the Sicilians usually fed cattle but were reduced to eating during the famine. A dish of bread crumbs represents the saw dust of St. Joseph’s carpentry, lilies are St. Joseph’s special flower and they, too are there, radiating their silent joy.
Lillian and Tom are expecting about 60 people. The tables are set.
The Ceremony of Saints
I am standing by the front door when the first knock comes. (This is the “tupa tupa” part of the ceremony)
“What do you want!?” people shout.
“We want a room.” Children giggle with excitement.
“No room! No room!” shout the people inside the house, smiling. We can hear the knockers move on to a different door and try again.
“NO ROOM!” everyone shouts. Outside they move on, coming at last to the back door, where they are welcomed in with joy and laughter.
I stand silently by as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, glide into the room. I see that Mary carries a basket of little white flowers. Joseph carries a staff.
The people are laughing, happy.
Little Jesus blesses the altar with holy water and a sprig of mint.
The Holy Family are welcomed to a special table, along with several saints, who have filed in behind them. I try to guess who is who.
They are served a meatless spaghetti meal with three small portions of food each plate, to represent the Holy Trinity.
Lillian and Tom, having served first St. Joseph, Jesus and Mary, and then the rest of the saints present, wash the feet and hands of each of them as the guests look on with merriment and joy.
A glass of wine is offered to each guest as a token of friendship. A fava bean is also given to each guest to keep with them in remembrance of God’s providence in hard times. Each person will keep one in their coin purses.
Jesus is given the cross shaped bread, Mary, the rosary, and St. Joseph the hammer.
The alter is then “broken,” and the guests partake of the feast.
Suddenly I realize there is a multitude in this room; quiet witnesses, loving participants filling every corner, looking on with shining eyes and gentle smiles. The ancestors, I realize, from the distant past in Sicily, from the farms of the Brazos Valley where they immigrated and lived their lives out, passing on their faith, devotion and traditions to their children and their children’s children, have come. Among them I recognize Lillian’s mother, Rosalie, who had so loved these celebrations.
And then I only see earthly people, wonderful Italian Texan people, and their friends sharing a big spaghetti meal and eating wonderful pastries, in the midst of a happy din and the glow of love, faith and friendship.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph have moved on to the next house, but Our Lady has left flowers of blessing for everyone.
The kingdom of God is among you.
Be blessed and welcomed always, St. Joseph, and pray for us.
- During the Ceremony of Saints at a St. Joseph altar, Jesus. Mary, Joseph and other Saints are represented by earthly guests. I used my prayerful imagination here. 🙂 Also the little white flowers were symbols of the Holy Family’s love and blessing, the grace of their visitation in my imagination.
*To see more pictures and learn more about the symbols and terms of the St. Joseph altar,and Tom and Lilly’s trip to her grandfather’s Italian home town, see my blog post about it on bethanyhangout.com
Thank you so much to Lillian and Tom Hughes, and to Becky Scamardo for their help and generosity.