What began as a high school student’s effort to complete service hours has become a family affair and a culinary adventure. Cody Dick, a senior at Brother Martin High School, was in eighth grade when he first volunteered to bake cookies for the school’s St. Joseph's Altar.
That’s also when his grandmother and guardian, June Bovie, began sharing her kitchen with friends and relatives who were eager to help.
By Tuesday, March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph, Bovie and her crew will have made close to 2,000 Italian cookies.
“I have so many friends who will say, ‘Please call me when you bake the cookies.’ And I do, occasionally,” said Bovie, adding that even her brother who lives in Albany, New York, helped while visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras. “It's just special if we do it together.”
At home, Cody serves as the taste tester.
“I’ll come home, see the pot of fig filling, the trays in the oven and the long strips of cookie dough,” he said.
Pointing to the kitchen counter, he added, “That’s where they set the cookies down when they take them out of the oven, and where I eat them, because they’re warm and fresh.”
This year, however, Cody’s main contribution took place at Brother Martin, where he and a handful of students spent weekend afternoons baking biscotti, fig, sesame and chocolate cookies, among other sweet treats. Parents and teachers were there to supervise and lend a hand.
“We have our Culinary Crusaders here,” said Cissy Yakelis, a Brother Martin faculty member. “They have taken an interest in the recipes for the altar, and how we do things.”
The students also filled 1,400 small paper bags with an assortment of cookies, a blessed fava bean, a prayer card, and a St. Joseph medal.
“Some students choose to help because of their service hours,” Yakelis said. “But I think they come because they genuinely want to, because they're giving up their Saturday to come.”
Anthony Lee, an eighth-grader, and his mother Kelli, participated in a recent baking session.
“It was fun making the cookies, and I got a chance to spend time with my mom,” he said, adding that the vanilla-flavored cookies are his favorite.
Eighth-grader Christopher Rosado signed up to fulfill service hour requirements, but also because he wanted to do something unique for Brother Martin.
“We just got in there, got some dough, and we started cutting the dough and just rolling them into balls, put them on a tray, and brought the tray into the kitchen to be baked,” he said, recalling the process.
“I didn't really know anything about baking or anything, so that was a new experience to me,” he said. “I actually kind of liked it, so I’ll probably do this every year from now on at Brother Martin.”
The altar, which is open to the public, is held in the James B. Branton Chapel on Brother Martin’s Gentilly campus. It’s covered with a carefully arranged assortment of cookies, iced cakes, thick loaves of bread shaped like religious symbols, fruit, a baked redfish that’s nearly 2-feet-long, stuffed artichokes, palm leaves and photos of loved ones who have passed away.
The altar is backed by colorful tapestries, candles and a tall statue of St. Joseph, which was made in Florence, Italy.
After St. Joseph’s feast day, the students help dismantle the altar.
The leftover food is given to the St. Jude Community Center on Rampart Street. Monetary donations benefit a Catholic missionary in Amatongas, Mozambique.
Bovie saves some of the blessed cookies for friends, including teachers at St. Michael Special School, where she volunteers.
“The underlying purpose of the altar is to share what you have. Even the people of Sicily, where (the St. Joseph altars) first started, had very little, but they would fix food to share with the people who had no food to eat,” Bovie said. “With all of this, I find that I have a devotion to St. Joseph and the family, because this is a family project for us.”