Feast Your Eyes on St. Joseph’s Altar

Everyone has the opportunity to indulge in cookies, cakes, pastries and more at St. Bridget Catholic Church on Sunday, March 15. For the third year in a row, the parish is celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph at 600 Clifford Ave., Loves Park.

“St. Joseph is really a forgotten saint,” says Jill Kapala, co-chair of the event. “So, we organize a St. Joseph Altar to remember him and celebrate him.”

Picture a bounty of food, including breads, fruits, veggies, seafood, pastas and desserts, all arranged around an altar. It’s an extraordinary feast that’s completely prepared by volunteers.

“All of the food is donated by people in the community – we have been blessed by local restaurants and businesses. Our main benefactor is Frank Graceffa. He purchased our beautiful statue and has sponsored us since we started,” says Laura Padron, the event’s other co-chair. “So much time, talent and love go into making this happen.”

The tradition of the St. Joseph Altar dates back centuries. Legend has it that the St. Joseph Altar originated in Sicily during a desperate time of famine and drought. During these hard times, people prayed to St. Joseph, asking for his intercession. When rain finally came, the people rejoiced by selecting their finest foods and wines to share with each other in thanksgiving to St. Joseph.

To this day, the custom and devotion continues. 

“Our wonderful mentor is Rosie (Scalise) Sheridan. We could not do the Altar without her. She has guided us every step of the way,” says Padron.

“The St. Joseph Altar is important to a lot of people,” Kapala explains. “People pray to St. Joseph to heal their medical challenges, or help them through a desperate time. People even have St. Joseph Altars in their own homes, a rich Italian tradition that dates back years in south Rockford. A lot of people donate food to us because they’re so grateful toward St. Joseph.” 

Every item on the altar has significance, Padron adds. The altar itself has three tiers, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. On the highest level, in a special place of honor, sits a statue of St. Joseph that’s surrounded by white lilies, which symbolize his purity.

The main dish served at every altar is the same: Pasta con Sarde, or Pasta Milanese. Every element of the dish is symbolic, including the bread crumbs sprinkled on top, which represent the sawdust in St. Joseph’s workshop. 

“The feast is entirely meatless, and there’s not even any cheese,” Padron adds. This is also a tradition, perhaps because there was a scarcity of meat.

Breads and pastries take on symbolic shapes, and every altar has a bowl of uncooked fava beans to symbolize abundance. Each person is invited to take one fava bean, which brings the owner luck, according to legend. 

It’s also tradition to donate leftovers to the needy. This year, leftovers are going to Mrs. Carly’s Place, in Rockford, which provides meals, clothing and hygiene items to those in need.

“That’s also what I love about this – being able to feed the poor – those in most need,” Padron says.

St. Bridget is just one of many local churches organizing a St. Joseph Altar. St. Anthony’s started the tradition many years ago, and St. Bernadette’s had an Altar last year. Kapala and Padron are now assisting St. Mary’s, in Sycamore, with starting their first Altar, and they hope to help St. Edward’s, in Rockford, start their own Altar in the future.

Those who wish to view the Altar at St. Bridget can attend a viewing on Saturday, March 14, between 4 and 6:30 p.m. 

“I really encourage people to come and look at the Altar – it’s just amazing to see,” Kapala says.
The feast on Sunday is free and open to all from 11:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Donations are appreciated, which go to various charities. After feasting, everyone goes home with a bag of cookies and a card with information about St. Joseph.

“I love seeing everyone come together,” Kapala says. “It’s also so rewarding to teach people about St. Joseph and the culture and traditions of the Altar. It’s a joyous event, we’re all Italian that day.” ❚