DENHAM SPRINGS — Preparations are underway for this year’s annual St. Joseph’s Altar at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, an elaborate creation featuring a wide array of food items that venerates the saint who has historically been honored on his feast day, March 19.

This year’s commemoration of St. Joseph will begin with the St. Joseph Mass at 7 p.m. March 15, with the blessing of the altar to follow in the Main Hall after the Mass. At 11 a.m., March 16, the ritual “Feeding of the Saints” will be held, and visitors can visit the altar and partake of a meal from noon to 3 p.m. Visitors to the altar will be given small bags containing cookies and the traditional fava bean.

On Feb. 7, groups of volunteers began gathering at the church's main hall to bake the tens of thousands of cookies and other items that will be given away at the St. Joseph’s Altar. Since that day, between 50 and 70 volunteers have met each Tuesday and Thursday to make preparations for the altar. On March 12-14, cooking of the spaghetti and gravy or sauce, along with other items, happens.

The altar will be set up at 1 p.m. March 10. Volunteers will then spend several days decorating the altar, carefully placing the food items on the edifice.

Once complete, the altar will feature a statue of St. Joseph, surrounded by baked bread creations that are reminiscent of Joseph the carpenter, such as ladders, saws, hammers and staffs. Placed on the altar will be cakes baked in forms such as lambs, a large baked fish, casseroles, fresh vegetables and fruit, votive candles, palms and flowers, and many trays of cookies.

“Building the St. Joseph’s Altar is a labor of love for the many, many volunteers who dedicate their time and talent to make this a wonderful occasion anticipated by so many of our citizens each year,” said Rosie Moak, who along with Henry Pulizzano Jr., spearheads preparation and construction of the altar.

Moak said the building of St. Joseph’s altars began in Sicily during a drought. The only thing that thrived was the fava bean, which is called the “lucky bean.” The people pleaded with St. Joseph, their patron, for relief. To show their gratitude after rain fell, the farmers prepared a table with an assortment of foods in honor of St. Joseph. Some of the food was distributed to the less fortunate.

Emigrants from Sicily who began to arrive in Louisiana in the mid-to late 1800s, brought the custom with them to their new homes, and the building of St. Joseph’s Altars has become a part of the Italian culture throughout the state. “Today, the St Joseph Altar is enjoyed and held special by just about everyone,” Moak said.

Pullizano and Moak are quick to point out that a large altar, such as the one at Immaculate Conception Church, requires the dedication of many volunteers. At a recent work session, about 50 men and women were making cookies.

The thousands of cookies are baked in small batches. When finished, they are decorated by hand and then placed in large, air-tight tins to stay fresh until needed for the altar. Moak said that about 21 different varieties of cookies are baked and decorated. She maintains a thick folder filled with about 75 pages of recipes for each item that will appear on the altar.

Dominic Distefano and John Lamonica have been frying tiny pieces of dough for pignolattis or haystacks. Both said they have been volunteering for that job for a number of years.

“I like doings this. I do a lot of volunteering, and I cook for good causes. It’s a lot of fun to be here with other volunteers working on something as special as the St. Joseph’s Altar,” Distefano said.

Lamonica said that he has been involved because it is part of a family tradition: “I do it for St. Joseph.”

Their attitude is typical of most volunteers who see their work as a special devotion to St. Joseph.

Moak, who begins planning in January, said she does it “because of my love for St. Joseph. Doing this work gives me a very good feeling. I am very blessed and it makes me feel that I am giving something back for the blessings that I have received.”

On cooking days, she spends about 10 hours supervising operations and making sure that all of the work is done in proper fashion.

Pulizzano, who said he has been involved with the St. Joseph Altar in Denham Springs for 22 years and for six years before that in Baton Rouge, built the “stage” or raised platforms that form the base for the altar. He also assists with the cooking.

“It is a beautiful custom that I want to see survive,” he said.

The Rev. Frank Uter, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, said, “This is a beautiful way of bringing people together. It’s so gratifying to see so many volunteers who come here to work together for a good cause. It is equally gratifying to see all the people who will come here on the day the altar is presented to the public to join in this wonderful tradition.  ... Everyone is welcome to come together as a community in celebration. This is the way I believe that Jesus would want us to be, everyone enjoying each other’s company in a celebration of life.”