DENHAM SPRINGS — The Rev. Frank Uter’s visits to hospitalized Immaculate Conception Catholic Church parishioners are a little sweeter at this time of year. That’s because he takes them bags of cookies given to visitors at the church’s annual St. Joseph’s Altar.

The altars are a Sicilian custom brought to Louisiana by 19th-century immigrants. They are traditionally set up for St. Joseph’s Day, which is March 19 for the Roman Catholic Church, but now are often held on the closest weekend to that date.

The custom of St. Joseph’s Altars began as a visible means of honoring St. Joseph for his intercession when Sicily was delivered from a severe drought and famine. The Sicilians erected altars in their homes to share food with others in need. This is the 17th year volunteers will erect a St. Joseph’s Altar in the Parish Hall at Immaculate Conception Church, located at 865 Hatchell Lane in Denham Springs. It will be open to the public Friday for the blessing of the altar after 7 p.m. Mass. On Sunday, there will be the Feeding of the Saints at 11 a.m. Sunday followed by the noon feast.

Last year volunteers with the Friends of St. Joseph fed more than 650 people and expect more to attend the free event this year. “We’ve made spaghetti sauce for 1,000 people,” said Henry Pulizzano, who co-chairs the event with Rosie Moak.

The church’s pastor said he began taking bags of the Italian delicacies to hospitalized people and shut-ins he visited last year after getting more than he could eat. “Different people had given me cookies and I tried to give them away … They were so well received, I asked for more.”

The cookies are “little reminders that our prayers are with them (the sick) even though they aren’t at church any more,” Uter said.

Containers of cookies also are sent as thank you gifts to the merchants who each year donate ingredients for the feast.

“We have very generous merchants and friends of St. Joseph,” Moak said, noting that one merchant provides 350 pounds of flour. She said 90 dozen eggs and 200 pounds of sugar are used for making the cookies and another 85 dozen boiled eggs are served with the spaghetti sauce.

On a recent Thursday morning, Uter joined dozens of volunteers in the Parish Hall to help with bagging cookies. Moak estimated they’ve made about 9,000 cookies. Every once in a while, well-behaved groups of 3- and 4-year-old youngsters from the church’s early learning center walked in and were greeted by a volunteer who offered them chocolate chip cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies are the first to be made each year especially for their young visitors, said co-chair Moak.

Volunteers don’t have to be Italian to help and that has influenced what foods are served at the annual feast, the volunteers said.

Each visitor to this weekend’s altar will get a bag with a generous amount of cookies. The bags include nontraditional oatmeal and peanut butter cookies, Moak said.

They also contain the traditional little, round, firm cookies Moak calls “rock cookies” in strawberry, orange, lemon, anise, almond, pineapple and coconut flavors, plus cherry thumbprints, biscotti, chocolate balls, Italian spice, cocoons, date and sesame seed cookies.

In addition, each bag has three fig cookies and a bag of crispy, fried pignolati soaked in a sugar sauce.

“You don’t go to Immaculate Conception and not get a fig cookie,” the most coveted cookies given out at area St. Joseph’s Altars, Moak said. “On every dessert plate” at the traditional feast Saturday “there will be a fig cookie and a handful of loose pignolati plus what’s in the cookie bag.”

Besides cookies, each guest leaves with a fava bean. “We buy 50 pounds of fava beans off eBay” to put in the take-out bags, Pulizzano said.

“When Sicily had the drought, the only thing that would grow was a fava bean because it takes the least amount of water and care,” Moak said. That’s also why the Sicilians prepare an altar of food to share with the poor and hungry, she said. “Because during the drought’s famine, they were hungry and had nothing to eat. As time went on, they started the altars as a thanksgiving to St. Joseph for basically (interceding in) keeping them alive.”

Symbolism is attached to each of the foods placed on the altar, she said. For example, the pignolati, or haystacks, symbolize the pine cones Jesus was said to play with as a child. Breads and cakes are made in the shapes of a cross, rosaries, palm leaves, St. Joseph’s sandals, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, angels, Easter eggs, lambs and Bibles.

Nothing served from the altar contains meat because it’s Lent nor is it store bought, Moak said.

“All the foods are prepared by volunteers, as many as 70 volunteers, some from out of state, Baton Rouge, many different parishes, not all are our parishioners and four aren’t even Catholic,” Moak said. “They come because they enjoy working for St. Joseph and the people. Isn’t that amazing?”

Nothing at the St. Joseph’s Altar is sold, although the church does welcome donations from visitors. Monies and all leftover food are donated to the local chapter of St. Vincent de Paul Society and other organizations serving the poor “because that’s the tradition of St. Joseph Altars,” Pulizzano said. “To give to charities.”

Pulizzano and Mary Guzzardo, who spearheaded the organization of the Friends of St. Joseph and the church’s first altar, continue to prepare foods for the altar using their family’s old Sicilian recipes.

That first year “we had only 12 people from the parish help out. Today we have 58,” Guzzardo said, looking around the Parish Hall where volunteers sorted cookies.

In keeping with tradition, each visitor also will get a small slice of bread from the altar. “It’s an old Italian tradition to save a piece of bread for dispelling storms,” Pulizzano said. “They throw it out when the weather is bad to protect their homes.”

Another tradition says “if a young lady wants to get pregnant, she must steal a lemon from the altar,” Moak said. “They can’t ask for the lemon or tell anyone. They have to take it. We always have a bowl of fresh lemons on the corner of the altar so they can reach it.”

Volunteer Mary Parker said, “I stole a lemon last year to give to my granddaughter. Now she is going to have twins, we’re hoping on St. Joseph’s Day.”