By Mark Shoffner
GREENVILLE – On Monday March the 20, St. Joseph parish celebrated their patron with a joint school Mass, Litany to St. Joseph and the construction of a St. Joseph Altar. The celebration was the first of its kind in Greenville. I was able to coordinate and construct with the support of our priests and the administration and faculty at the school to really do something special for our patron.
Building altars to those we venerate is not an unusual thing in Catholic tradition. We have altars to our Blessed Mother and her various apparitions, our patron saints in our parishes and altars are constructed along eucharistic processions as places to stop and pray. The history of St. Joseph altars go back to the Middle Ages on the island of Sicily.
The island of Sicily was struck by a great drought that devastated the local crops. Fields became so barren that nothing new could be cultivated for many years. The only crop that would grow was the humble fava bean. This large bean had been previously grown only as livestock feed, now it was seemingly the sole source of nourishment for the island and its starving people and animals. Such terrible conditions lead the Sicilian people to pray fervently to St. Joseph, their patron, to deliver them from the famine. And deliver them, he did.
The rains returned, the crops flourished and the people, once at risk of starvation, now rejoiced at the blessings God had granted them. In order to show gratitude to St. Joseph for his fatherly help in their time of great need, the Sicilians constructed an altar filled with fresh fruit and vegetables that the rains had enabled them to grow.
Over time, this tradition grew to its current form: colorfully decorated altars with fava beans, elaborate cakes, traditional Italian cookies, fresh produce, as well as statues and images of St. Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus and notable Italian saints such as St. Lucy, St. Francis and St. Benedict. This tradition made its way to the United States when masses of Sicilian immigrants came through the port of New Orleans and today this devotion to St. Joseph is still very active, especially in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Traditionally, all the food on an altar is donated and then distributed to the poor, ensuring that the blessings St. Joseph wins for us are passed on to others.
The elementary and high school children learned and practiced special music from old hymnals in honor of St. Joseph and joyfully sang out during the Mass. The school was led in the recitation of the litany of St. Joseph by Father Bill Henry, pastor of St. Joseph, and SGA Vice President Carson Mansour.
The big reveal came when the children gathered in the cafetorium and were led in the blessing of the altar by Father Tom Mullally, SVD, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Greenville. He blessed the altar and the children with a shower of holy water. The children wrote prayer petitions to St. Joseph and received a cupcake after they toured the altar to view all its components. Surrounding the altar were nearly 2,000 cans of food which the children had collected to go to our local St. Vincent de Paul Society to help the disadvantaged in Greenville. Just like centuries ago, St. Joseph fed the hungry who prayed to him.
It was truly a sight to behold. This kind of celebration for our patron had never occurred in our parish and I was glad I was able to bring something I learned down in Louisiana back to the parish. Our lives as Catholics involve more than praying and going to Mass. Our Catholic faith is full of traditions big and small that extend into our communities and cultures as well as help us grasp and understand the faith. This tradition I’m sure has helped us locally to reach out to the Protector of the Church and our patron, St. Joseph.
(Mark Shoffner helps with Faith Formation at Greenville St. Joseph Parish)