Since St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church was established in 1841 in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood, it has been “a church of the city’s free black citizens.” But, it also has had some strong Italian connections, said church secretary Linda Harris in explaining why the church hosts an annual St. Joseph’s Altar.
“The church has been doing that for many, many years,” she said. “Church documents indicate that one point there were many Italians living in the area” of the church at 1210 Gov. Nicholls St. This year’s three-tiered altar will be held on St. Joseph Day, Thursday, March 19.
“The altar will be available for viewing at 11 a.m. with the blessing at noon. We will give out the St. Joseph card and lucky bean at noon from the altar. After the blessing, we share a meal of meatless dishes … outside under a tent provided by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Department,” Harris said.
Most donations for the altar and meal come from parishioners, including Beverly Curry, who has helped since she joined the church eight years ago. “I grew up by St. Joseph Church where my family helped prepare the altar there and I had an aunt who helped at St. Jude so I learned” about the St. Joseph Altar traditions, she said.
Parishioners make “about five or seven different dishes like Italian cabbage, different things without meat in it,” Curry said. “Eggplant casserole, baked fish dish, vegetarian lasagna, salads. David Roe does all the other baking. I believe he has an Italian mother or grandmother who taught him his craft. And, the secretary (Harris) goes to Angelo’s Bakery in Metairie to get the lamb, fish and Bible cakes and the fish and cross,” which are made of bread.
They sometimes set aside some of the pastries for Covenant House New Orleans which serves homeless and at-risk youth.
Altar Society members help cook the food served outside. “They do the cooking the day before and the day of for up to 200 to 300 people,” Curry said.
Musician David Roe, a piano player in his band Royal Rounders, gets help from friends in making thousands of Italian cookies, plus breads, in different shapes for the altar.
“I’m not really even a member of the church,” he said. “Kathleen Barrow, one of the nice ladies who sat in the church to keep the church from being closed after Katrina,” asked him to help. “Her mother owned a junk shop on Decatur Street in the ’80s. She and my mother, a little Sicilian lady, are like peas in a pod when they get together.”
Roe, who lives in New Orleans’ St. Roch neighborhood, describes himself as a “Sicilian boy” trying “to make it good with his mother” who now lives in upstate New York. “The reason for doing the St. Joseph’s Altar, it’s a prayer of thanks, for favors received. It’s something to do for Mom” as “a good lapsed Catholic boy.”
He learned about St. Joseph Altars from his grandmother, Carmella Palermo, who was the housekeeper for a monsignor in Trenton, New Jersey. “There are a lot of Southern Italians in that area.”
It was his grandmother and aunt Maggie who taught him to make the cuccidati, or Italian fig cookie. For St. Augustine’s altar he prepares five different cookie doughs. Besides the all-important fig cookie, he makes biscotti, anise cookies, Italian seed cookies, almond crescents and macaroons.
Three years ago, Joe Fontana, captain of Krewe du Vieux, saw what Roe was doing and “I told him he should do it for his mother. It’s a great way to honor your mother while she is still here. Last year, Joe showed up every day. Then there are women who help, too. Angie Bradford helped last year. Maureen Rice is from New York City and comes here for the week of St. Joseph’s. There are a variety of people who come and spend one day — artist friends, including Gardenia Moon, she’s from California. She does the relief work for the cuccidati.
“We start making cookies 10 days before and start the breads about six days before,” he said. Using a dough that he says “is really a sculptor dough with lots of egg in it,” he fashions hammer, compass and saw shapes to represent tools St. Joseph would have used as a carpenter.
They make thousands of cookies, and “I do everything in my home stove,” Roe said.