In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so many Sicilian immigrants lived in the French Quarter that the area near the market was called “Little Palermo.” On the feast day of St. Joseph, March 19, Sicilian families would create altars in their homes honoring and supplicating their patron saint, the earthly father of Jesus, perhaps to heal an illness or to bring success in education or in life. Presumably, prayers to St. Joseph brought rains to Sicily hundreds of years ago, preventing famine. Today, the rains merely forced the party to move from tents outside to under the shelter of the French Market roof.
Sicilians brought to America their tradition of decorating St. Joseph altars with candles, flowers and traditional, meatless foods, including breads, cookies, fruits, lentils, vegetables, spaghetti and seafood. After evening and morning visitation, a feast ensues, including inviting the hungry and less fortunate to take part.
Cynthia Portera and Toni Offner decorated the French Market altar, while honoring their Sicilian maternal grandparents, Joseph and Josephine. The sisters regularly sell Italian pastries at the market, including biscotini, anise, cucidati fig, macaroons, tatu chocolate spice and guijalini seed cookies made at Portera’s Panetteria in Destrehan.
The Palermo Import/Export Band played music that was performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jimmy Durante as well as New Orleans native Louis Prima, the “King of Swing.” Band members include Royal Rounder David Roe, drummer Freddy Staehle, saxophonists Jerry Jumonville and Ejric Bernhardt, trumpeter Jay Hagen, bass player Tim Paco and vocalist Antoine Diel. Their repertoire will include Prima’s “Buona Sera,” “Volare” and “That’s Amore” made popular by Dean Martin.
But St. Joseph’s Day is, above all, a religious occasion. Starting Tuesday, March 18, several other St. Joseph’s Day altars throughout New Orleans will be on display, including another a block away at 1116 Chartres Street in the former Italian church, now St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The public is invited to view the altar and pray the rosary on the evening of the 18th and morning of the 19th.
|St. Mary's at Ursuline Convent|
Foods served on St. Joseph’s Day are largely symbolic. Joseph was a carpenter, so modrica, meaning toasted breadcrumbs, are spread on the altar to represent sawdust. Breads may be formed in the shapes of sandals, shepherd’s staff, crown of thorns or cross, for example.
|Breads at St. Mary's Church|
Angelo Brocato, the Sicilian ice cream and pastry store founded in 1905 still makes pignolati, balls of dough that are fried and covered with caramelized sugar or honey. Their pyramid shapes represent pinecones the child Jesus might have used as playthings.
A century ago, people would be selected to play Jesus, Mary, Joseph and saints, knocking on three doors in search of food and shelter in a Sicilian ritual called Tupa-Tupa. At the third door, they were welcomed to enter and feast, as will all on March 19.