IN SEARCH OF ST. JOSEPH
I found the town I’ve been looking for and I’ll reveal it here, but first let me tell you what the search was all about.
This is our travel issue, and that brings to mind two trips I’ve made to Sicily. I am not Sicilian, nor Italian, but I have long been fascinated by the Sicilian cultural contribution to New Orleans. This town experienced the largest Sicilian migration in the nation. One especially colorful and meaningful contribution was St. Joseph Day altars. I remember visiting my first altar as kid where I heard an old Sicilian grandma explain that she began building the food altars after a tiny saint appeared in her room and told her to do so. That was a hard command to turn down.
While in Sicily I was curious about the tradition and how and where it was being celebrated. To my surprise, I got mostly blank stares when I asked about it. Someone might mention hearing that a certain small village practiced the tradition, but no one was really sure. My other surprise was that St. Joseph, to whom we were told the altars were dedicated for having saved the island from famine, isn’t a major figure there in the pantheon of saints. In Europe (where most saints came from), it’s more common for every town to have a native saint than to honor a universal figure; thus St. Rosalia is worshiped in Palermo, St. Lucy in Syracuse and St. Agatha in Catania. Joseph just doesn’t have his own town.
Then I learned something else surprising:, Sicilian is a dying language in Sicily. Most of the younger generation speaks Italian rather than the language of the island. At dinner one night with some Italian fellow travelers from Brooklyn, I realized the truth about ethnic preservation. It survives not in the old country but in the places where the emigrants went. In the U.S., the language and traditions of the time when immigrants arrived perserveres; in the old country the past is overwhelmed by modernization. The Italians from Brooklyn likely knew more about native recipes than most people in Palermo.
Which brings me back to the St. Joseph Day altars. I have discovered the epicenter of the tradition. It is a place called New Orleans. Though there aren’t as many altars as there used to be, and their locations have gradually shifted to the suburbs, nevertheless here is where the tradition is still practiced, sometimes for reasons that are devout, occasionally as a matter of historic preservation. In this town homage to St. Joseph even spilled into the Black Creole community, most likely an influence of early Italian neighborhood grocery stores. Where the tradition is practiced in spots around the country it was mostly likely brought there by someone from New Orleans rather than Sicily.
Mid-March is always a special time in New Orleans with the celebrations by the Irish on the 17th and the Sicilians on the 19th. But while the Irish’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is really an extension of Carnival, the St. Joseph tradition is spiritual and poetic. St. Joseph might have saved Sicily; New Orleans, in its own way, saved St. Joseph.