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Pat Ertmann, a parishioner at St. Ambrose, and St. Ambrose School eighth-grader Santiago Guzman handed out bread to parishioners after Mass on March 17 at St. Ambrose Parish in St. Louis. The bread was blessed during Mass as part of a St. Joseph Altar tradition.
Pat Ertmann, a parishioner at St. Ambrose, and St. Ambrose School eighth-grader Santiago Guzman handed out bread to parishioners after Mass on March 17 at St. Ambrose Parish in St. Louis. The bread was blessed during Mass as part of a St. Joseph Altar tradition.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

A ‘powerful intercessor’ through the ages

Traditional Italian St. Joseph Altar celebration at St. Ambrose honors the saint’s faithfulness

The buttery scent of fresh-baked cookies mingled with the sound of laughter wafting out of the St. Ambrose School kitchen.

In the week leading up to St. Joseph’s feast day celebration, women of the St. Joseph Altar committee gather there each afternoon to bake thousands of traditional Italian cookies. On March 12, they circled around the long work station to roll cucciadati, a Sicilian cookie wrapped into a cylinder around a filling of figs, chocolate, nuts, orange, honey and more.

Tony Ilardi, a parishioner at Incarnate Word in Chesterfield; Margaret Schmidt, a parishioner at Ascension in Chesterfield; and Becky Tower, a parishioner at St. Ambrose, looked over items for sale around a St. Joseph Altar on March 17 at St. Ambrose Parish in St. Louis. Money raised at the sale goes toward St. Ambrose School tuition assistance.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
The cucciadati recipe has been passed down through the generations of Maryjo Monterosso’s family, with a few small tweaks of her own. She’s glad to lend the recipes to the St. Joseph Altar cause. Like many of her fellow Sicilians, Joseph is a common name in her family — and a favorite patron, Monterosso said.

“He’s been a popular saint in our family, because he was a worker — he was like all of my family members. They weren’t aristocratic; my dad and my grandpa, everybody worked with their hands,” she said. “My father had a statue in his tool chest of St. Joseph, which I now have on my shelf in my kitchen. So he’s very influential.”

St. Ambrose Parish, which has a long history of Italian heritage, celebrates St. Joseph with a traditional St. Joseph Altar on the Sunday closest to his March 19 feast day each year.

The St. Joseph Altar tradition dates back to the Middle Ages in Sicily. Legend has it that a severe drought brought people to the brink of starvation. They prayed to God through the intercession of St. Joseph; rains came, the crops returned and the island was saved.

To give thanks, the Sicilian people set up tables of food to honor St. Joseph and share their bounty with the poor, St. Ambrose pastor Father Jack Siefert said during his Sunday homily.

“These beautiful altars didn’t just have food — they had the best of everything they could make, grow, create. And then what they would do is distribute it to the poor,” he said. “A very simple concept that is as relevant today as it was centuries ago in Sicily: Pay forward God’s blessings and goodness.”

At the end of Mass, Father Siefert blessed small loaves of bread, baked by four bakeries on the Hill and placed in front of the statue of St. Joseph, which were then distributed to each person by St. Ambrose students. The parish also honors a person or group for their service to others each year, this year recognizing Sister Sandra Krupp, ASCJ, for her ministry to the homebound.

Downstairs in the church hall, a St. Joseph Altar dominated the room: a large statue of St. Joseph, surrounded by flowers, candles, fruit and a bread wreath, and adjoining tables overflowing with the several varieties of cookies baked that week, breads, desserts, wine and more. In the spirit of sharing the bounty with those in need, money raised from selling the goods goes toward tuition assistance for St. Ambrose School families.

Father Jack Siefert blessed bread near a St. Joseph Altar at Mass on March 17 at St. Ambrose Parish in St. Louis. Parishioners were given the bread as they left the church after Mass.
Photo Credits: jac
Devotion to St. Joseph, as well as other saints, is “huge in Italian culture,” said Loretta Vitale-April, chair of the St. Joseph Altar committee. Vitale-April moved to the United States from Sicily with her family at age 2. She recalled celebrating the feast of St. Joseph with their neighbors; it was common back then for Sicilians to set up St. Joseph altars in their own homes, she said.

“Growing up, my mom would give out bread to neighbors and friends,” she said. “She wasn’t the one who set up the altar, but she’d always make sure that she had bread to give to everybody herself.”

In 1971, Father Sal Polizzi, then an associate pastor at St. Ambrose, “said we need to make sure that this tradition does not die, so we’re going to take it out of the homes and bring it into the church. And it has been going on annually every since,” Vitale-April said.

Vitale-April has been the committee chair for around 15 years. She “still gets goosebumps” when she thinks about St. Joseph’s faithfulness in her life, she said.

Marie Wohlert, a parishioner at St. Ambrose, wore an apron with the message “For the love of St. Joseph” while scooping Italian butter cookie batter for the parish’s St. Joseph Altar on March 13 at the St. Ambrose School kitchen in St. Louis.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
“My father was Giuseppe. My son is Samuel Joseph. My son came after nine years of being married and trying, and you know what his birthday is? March 19,” the feast of St. Joseph, whom she had been praying to for help.

So when she was asked to help with the feast day celebration, it was a no-brainer. “I can’t say no to St. Joseph,” she said.

Bread and cookies aren’t the only St. Joseph Altar traditions. The committee also put together bags of Italian breadcrumbs, mixing leftover bread from Joe Boccardi’s with parsley, oregano, granulated garlic and onion, and pepper. “What do breadcrumbs look like? Sawdust. Who produces a lot of sawdust? Carpenters,” Vitale-April explained.

And to signify the abundance of the harvest through St. Joseph’s intercession — so abundant that fava beans grew out of the rocks in Sicily, legend has it — blessed fava beans are also distributed. Tradition holds that if you carry a fava bean in your wallet, you will never lack for the necessities of life.

Rose Rancilio, Sue Frey and Linda Barni Hausman, all parishioners at St. Ambrose, shared a moment while making Italian butter cookies for the parish’s St. Joseph Altar on March 13 at the St. Ambrose School kitchen. The cookies, most of which were traditional Italian cookies, were sold to raise money for St. Ambrose School tuition assistance.
Photo Credits: jac
St. Joseph has been “a powerful intercessor” for Rita Tintara’s family, Tintara said.

“My dad was Joe. My brother is Joseph; my son is Joseph; my nephew is Joseph,” she said. “St. Joseph is who I pray to. My son Joseph has twin babies, and I pray every day that my Joseph can emulate St. Joseph as a protector and caregiver for his family.”

For Linda Barni Hausman, whose family hails from the Lombardy region of northern Italy, the St. Joseph Altar was a tradition she first learned about from Sicilian friends and classmates. Devotion to St. Joseph spans across the country, despite the rivalry that often existed between the two cultural groups. In the early days of the St. Joseph Altar committee at St. Ambrose, one Sicilian and one Lombard would be chosen as co-chairs, Barni Hausman recalled.

“Father Polizzi thought that was the only way we could keep the peace,” Vitale-April added. “…Now we do it all together. We all get along.”

Sister Sandra Krupp, ASCJ, smiled as she was recognized for her ministry to the homebound in St. Ambrose Parish during Mass on March 17 at St. Ambrose Parish in St. Louis. At the right of Sister Sandra was her sibling, Sister Susan Marie Krupp, ASCJ, and to the left was Sister Christine Rattini, ASCJ.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
Jan Agusti, whose heritage includes Irish ancestors, good-naturedly joked that she was giving up St. Patrick’s Day for the St. Joseph celebration, which this year fell on March 17.

“I get to do something with these ladies that are my dear friends,” she said. “And one of the things I love to do is baking, and I get to devote this to our parish for a good cause.”

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