Saying “thank you” transcends theological differences. Just ask the Rev. Barbara Simmers, pastor of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Slidell and organizer of the church’s St. Joseph Altar.
Yes, that’s right: A Lutheran church with a St. Joseph Altar. Here’s how that came about:
When a group of senior citizens from St. Bernard Parish started meeting at Peace Lutheran Church after Katrina (it was one of the few Slidell buildings open for business), one of the St. Bernard ladies wanted to say “Thank you!” for the hospitality. And so Alma Phulin put together a St. Joseph Altar at the church.
Phulin has since passed away, but the altar has remained a tradition, thanks to Simmers, church member Stephanie Smith and the “Where Y’ats.”
The Where Y’ats are the senior citizens from St. Bernard who relocated to Slidell after Katrina and still meet at the church once a week. “We wanted to be an ongoing partnership,” Simmers said. “We decided we would feed them every month.
“They were so appreciative of meeting at the church,” Simmer said.
“Alma said she and the others wanted to give us this gift, something that meant a lot to them. She was an Italian Catholic lady with some Lutheran heritage.”
The altar has the traditional Italian food, cookies and sacred items. “We had to adjust it a little bit because our theology is different regarding St. Joseph,” Simmers said. “When blessing the altar, the Roman Catholics pray to St. Joseph for protection. What we do is give God the glory for the saint’s witness.”
Simmers said she has enjoyed learning about the altar.
“It has been neat to learn how to make the food, and about the patron saint.”
She said that St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church in Slidell was a big help when she was researching the altar. “They were very kind,” she said. “They gave us their bread that is used on the altars. That was sweet of them. I went to them and said, ‘Could you please help this poor Lutheran girl who knows nothing about these altars?’”
The Where Y’ats do the cooking, and church member Stephanie Smith is in charge of organizing the baking.
Smith said that she and several ladies bake on four consecutive Tuesdays, ending up with about 1,000 cookies. Smith said this is her third year helping with the altar. “It has evolved over the years,” she added. “We usually have about 75 to 80 people show up. It’s a good way to get together.”
The altar will be open on March 25 at 9 a.m.
“We have a blessing, we have the food, and we try to invite as many people as possible to come,” Simmers said. “We have more food than we can possibly use. What we have left, we give away to people as they leave.”
St. Joseph’s altars became popular in New Orleans when Sicilian immigrants settled in the city. The altars commemorate the relief St. Joseph provided during a famine in Sicily. Traditionally, they are blessed and people are served on or near St. Joseph’s Day, which is March 19. Simmers said she always schedules the Peace Lutheran altar after the feast day, so the Catholic ladies in the Where Y’at group can participate in both.
Simmers said she has enjoyed the altar for many reasons, including the opportunity to teach people about St. Joseph.
“What I’m trying to do is bring in some education, meaning we believe in the same things. We concentrate on St. Joseph as the protector of Jesus … he taught Jesus how to be a man.”
All are welcome to join Peace Lutheran and the Where Y’ats for the St. Joseph altar on March 25. “We just want to share the love of the Lord,” Smith said.
The church is located at 1320 Gause Blvd. in Slidell.