DENHAM SPRINGS — Making the breads, cookies and pastries displayed on a local St. Joseph Altar is Mary Guzzardo's way of continuing a family tradition.

Guzzardo, one of the dozens of volunteers laboring to bake and decorate the hundreds of cookies being prepared for this year’s St. Joseph’s Altar at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, describes her work with the altar as a "labor of love" she dedicates to St. Joseph, who "has been my patron saint all my life."

"My mother made an altar every year, and this has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember,” she said during a recent cookie making session with dozens of volunteers at the church hall.

Guzzardo and the other volunteers worked quickly, adding icing and colored sugar atop the cookies spread out in pans on several long tables. The experienced cookie and cake bakers and decorators made quick work of readying the delectable sweets for the altar.

When completed, the St. Joseph Altar will be covered with much more than just the cookies. The traditional altar will include specially prepared breads, cakes in several different forms, fruits and vegetables, stuffed artichokes, a baked fish, statues, candles and flowers. One thing missing will be meat. By tradition, meat dishes are never placed on the altar. The completed altar will be the final result of several weeks of preparation by many volunteers.

The public will have their initial opportunity to view the altar in the Parish Main Hall, when it is blessed at 7 p.m. on Friday, following the St. Joseph’s Mass which will be held in the nearby sanctuary. On Saturday, at 11 a.m., the Feeding of the Saints, a ritual observed in connection with the St. Joseph’s Altar, will be held. At noon, the doors to the hall will open, and the St. Joseph’s meal will be shared until 3 p.m.

“This is our big day. … This is when we welcome all the people who come. Celebrating the feast of St. Joseph with so many people at the altar is our reward for all the hard work that we do over many, many weeks,” said Rosie Moak, who along with Henry Pulizzano Jr. oversees the weeks of preparation necessary to complete the colorful altar.

Moak said everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation, is invited to the Saturday meal, which has as its highlight pasta covered with Pulizzano’s “famous” sauce. Visitors will be given a bag of the cookies, one of the coveted treats of a St. Joseph’s altar, and a decorated fava bean. The bean is for good health and luck in the coming year. Moak anticipates that about 700 will gather for the meal.

The tradition of erecting a St. Joseph’s Altar started in Sicily after a devastating famine reduced the fields to dried-out stalks and dust. In desperation, the people turned to special prayers to their patron, St. Joseph. Their prayers were rewarded when rains finally came and the crops returned.

According to an account written by the Rev. Mike Bergeron, an authority on the altars: “When the rains came, the people rejoiced. Later, to show their gratitude, they prepared a table with a special assortment of foods they had harvested. After paying honor to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate. The first altars were small, but as time went on, the tradition took hold. The flamboyant nature and creative spirit of the Italians caused the altars to grow larger and more ornate.”

Visitors to a St. Joseph’s Altar are usually drawn to the breads that are part of the three-tiered altar. Bread baked to resemble symbols of St. Joseph such as lilies, a staff, sandals, a beard, ladder, saw, hammer and nails are prominent on the altar. Bowls of breadcrumbs are reminders that St. Joseph was a carpenter and the breadcrumbs are sawdust.

Through Sicilian immigrants, the custom of St. Joseph Altars was introduced to America. Now, the celebration is not confined to any nationality. It has become a public event devoted to participants’ embrace for a host of private and personal reasons.

The Rev. Frank Uter, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, said his congregation takes pride in constructing the St. Joseph’s Altar every year.

"This is an opportunity to gather together and give thanks for all the good people who will come here to visit and pray even as we remember those who have gone before us," he said. "The St. Joseph’s Altar is a celebration of thanksgiving and fellowship.”

Planners of the St. Joseph observance reach out to those who are aged and infirm. Uter said he makes it a point to bring cookies to the sick and homebound on his visits to homes and hospitals.

Work on the altar starts at the end of December, Moak explained. Community donations make it possible to continue the tradition.

The actual work in preparing the cakes and cookies started on March 7 when dozens of volunteers gathered at the church hall to start the baking process. Since that time, the group has met every Tuesday and Thursday to continue stockpiling the cookies and cakes for the altar. Other complements, such as the specialty breads, the fruits and vegetables will be added as the time nears for completion of the altar. Cooking of the sauce for the pasta and other items will be done at the Knights of Columbus Hall March this week.

The altar setup was begun on Sunday and is assembled on a special framework that Pulizzano designed a number of years ago.

Guzzardo said that support for the altar has been overwhelming since the first one was built 21 years ago. “With Henry Pulizzano, we started all this with just eight people. … We had no money when we started … but by the time we finished, we had $600 that had been donated. Only four of the original eight are still here today, and we are all still involved.”

Volunteer Theresa "Tee" Campagna said working on the altar is an important part of her life.

“Every year I make a prayer to St. Joseph for myself and others. … I ask for good health and a good year for everyone. I ask that all the people learn to get along so that we can all enjoy the good things that we have. The St. Joseph’s Altar is an important part of my life, and I just hope that those of us who build the altars today can pass this great tradition on to others.”

Dough recipe for cookies used in St. Joseph Altar

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church volunteer Rosie Moak provided this recipe for basic dough that can be used to make the popular orange, pineapple, anise, lemon, almond, strawberry and coconut cookies used on St. Joseph Altars. This recipe makes five batches.

INGREDIENTS

4 cups flour

1¼ cups sugar

½ cup Crisco

4 teaspoons baking powder

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Milk (to make dough pliable)

½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts

1 teaspoon flavoring (orange, pineapple, anise, lemon, almond or strawberry)

DIRECTIONS

Mix eggs, vanilla, extracts and sugar. Add Crisco and mix. Add combined flour and baking powder. Add milk and nuts. Use 1 teaspoon to shape into balls about the size of a quarter. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until golden brown.

ICING

Powdered sugar, evaporated milk, small sliver of butter. Use food coloring to match cookie.