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St. Joseph’s Altar celebration is Saturday

NATCHEZ — For the 15th year, members of Assumption Catholic Church on Morgantown Road will host a feast at the altar that would also feed the hungry people in the Natchez community in recognition of a traditional Italian celebration.

The annual St. Joseph’s Altar Celebration — believed to have originated in Sicily in the Middle Ages — begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Assumption Catholic Church, 10 Morgantown Road and all are welcome to join, said St. Joseph Altar Society Chair, Elodie Maier.

According to legend, a severe drought occurred in Sicily centuries ago that rid the island of all its food sources, except for a small crop of fava beans that were only used to feed cattle, Maier said.

The starving Sicilians depended on the beans for survival and prayed to God that St. Joseph would send rain for their salvation. When the rain came, the Sicilians hosted a feast in honor of St. Joseph, and they hold it every year since.

Maier said the custom might have been brought to Natchez by the first Italian Catholics to settle in New Orleans, who carried their traditions up river. The tradition continues today as a time of giving and remembrance.

The women of the church prepare traditional fig and seed cookies that sit on a three-tear altar among bread made into symbolic shapes, fruits, vegetables, desserts and pictures of deceased loved ones, Maier said.

“St. Joseph sits at the top, and we have dough ornaments of things that relate to St. Joseph or the church that are spread on the altar,” she said. “It may be shaped into sandals — because he wore sandals — a shepherd’s crook, a monstrance, a heart and some of little birds that we put out every year …”

All of the dishes people bring are meatless, Maier said, in remembrance of the famine when all of the Sicilians’ livestock perished.

After a blessing led by the Rev. David O’Connor, participants in the feast eat directly from the altar and write down their prayers on slips of paper that are burned and symbolically sent to heaven, Maier said.

Whatever is leftover from the feast is given to the Natchez Stewpot, Maier said, along with whatever donations people may bring — including monetary donations, canned goods, bags of dried beans or other non-perishable items.

For keepsakes, each participant receives a cookie, a lucky fava bean and a medal, Maier said.

In previous years the feast has been celebrated by as many as 50 attendees, beginning with elders in the church and shared with younger generations, she said.

“I really enjoy putting this feast it together and seeing everyone come,” Maier said. “My granddaughter enjoys making the cookies. … Everyone brings things to the altar, and each year is never exactly the same as the ones before.”

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