High schools promote tradition of St. Joseph altars

New Orleans’ Sicilian community is known for its devotion to St. Joseph by preparing elaborate altars each year on or near his feast day, March 19.

     While the majority are in church parishes or the homes of Catholics of Sicilian heritage, several high schools also have altars. The schools tend to use a St. Joseph altar as a teaching tool to highlight the work of St. Joseph and reinforce this special devotion in the Catholic faith.
Brother Martin High School, Archbishop Chapelle High School and St. Scholastica Academy are holding inaugural altars this year.

Brother Martin
     Crusader mom Joni Beshel is organizing Brother Martin’s altar with the help of school receptionist Cissy Yakelis, the Builders Club, campus ministry and Brothers of the Sacred Heart Ronald Hingle and Carl Bouchereau, who are baking the symbolic breads and altar cakes. Parents are donating the majority of the cookies.
    “This isn’t just something with a lot of food,” Yakelis said. “There is symbolism and meaning behind it.”
    Brother Martin students will learn about the symbolism of the food and objects on the altar through their religion classes, Yakelis said, and will view the altar March 19 in the school’s new chapel after a school Mass at 7:15 a.m. The altar will be blessed at 8 a.m. and will be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. A spaghetti dinner from 4 to 7 p.m. will benefit the Brothers of the Sacred Heart missions.
    Beginning March 19 and continuing through March 24, Brother Martin’s Campus Ministry also will hold a Lenten food drive to benefit Second Harvest Food Bank.
Archbishop Chapelle
    President Jane Ann Frosch said former and current students have taken an active interest in the school’s first altar. Alumnae have been baking cookies with students in the school’s cafeteria, and students have been learning about the tradition of the altar in New Orleans in their religion classes.
    “It’s such a powerful tradition in the city of New Orleans and such an ingrained thing,” Frosch said. “There is concern among my generation that the tradition is dying, and we (at Chapelle) want to expose students to it because of its importance to our faith and culture in this city.”
    Chapelle’s altar is in the gym and will be blessed March 18 at 4 p.m. by Deacon Drea Capaci, the school’s chaplain. It will remain open for viewing until 9 p.m. and reopen March 19 from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Students will tour the altar from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. during lunch and independent study.
St. Scholastica
    For weeks, students, parents and alumnae have been making cookies and donating items for St. Scholastica’s first altar, said advancement director Elaine Simmons.
    The altar was suggested this year by Steve and Elizabeth Nuccio, parents of 2011 graduate Alicia and current eighth grader Stefanie, and aunt and uncle to alumna Caitlin Canatella.
    “When Elizabeth came forward, we decided it was a fabulous idea to get our girls involved in this devotion to St. Joseph,” Simmons said.
    A 9:30 a.m. Mass on March 18 will be celebrated in the school’s Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel, followed by the Tupa Tupa re-enactment of the Holy Family looking for shelter, then the altar blessing in the cafeteria, viewing and a meal until 1:30 p.m. Admission for the meal is by donation, with proceeds benefitting scholarships for students Angelle Ulfers and Catherine Gensler. The altar will remain up for students on March 19.
    St. Scholastica principal Mary Kathryn Villere said St. Joseph altars are a wonderful example of the Catholic faith. When the altar is taken down, any food remaining will be given to Safe House, a battered women’s shelter in St. Tammany.
    “You not only honor the saints but at the same time it’s all about giving,” Villere said. “What’s left over from the altar will be donated to those in need.”
Holy Cross tradition
    St. Joseph is the patron saint of Holy Cross School, so it was no surprise to discover that the school had an altar for decades at its former campus on St. Claude Avenue, said Paula McGehee, coordinator of the newly organized Holy Cross St. Joseph Altar Society. Even in 2006, after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the campus, the school set up a small altar on the Mississippi levee near the school, and it did it again in 2007.        When the school was digging through the attic on the old campus after Hurricane Katrina, the original, three-tier wooden altar was found.
    “We are trying to get it restored now,” McGehee said. In fact, the senior class has chosen to refurbish it as their gift to the school. I am super excited about it.”
    McGehee, mother of senior Craig, is a third-generation Sicilian who started volunteering with the school’s altar three years ago.    Because the school lost everything in the storm, McGehee said she is trying to round up tablecloths, statues, vases and everything needed for an altar. The altar tradition is not to buy but beg for items needed on an altar.
    “I won’t go out and purchase it,” she said. “I go out and beg for it. Everything is donated.”
    The new campus doesn’t yet have the kitchen capacity to bake cookies on a large scale, so McGehee said society members bake at home. She has a goal of baking 5,250 cookies this year.
    “That would give each student and faculty four cookies in a bag plus have extra bags for the public,” she said.
    Next year, she said she plans to involve students more in making the cookies. Right now boys make donations to the altar. McGehee said the society is open to anyone interested in working the altar. Members began on this year’s altar after Christmas.

The public is invited to view Holy Cross’ altar March 19 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the library on the third floor of the administration building. A school Mass will precede the opening at 8:15 a.m. This year’s altar will be dedicated to Bernard Gould, a 2003 graduate who died in 2011.
MCA altar started in 2006
    At Mount Carmel Academy, the idea for an altar materialized shortly after the school was holding a Stations of the Cross through its Lakeview neighborhood following Hurricane Katrina. Religion coordinator Angela Elliott  said amidst all the devastation around them, they heard hammering in the distance at the station where Jesus was nailed to the cross.
    “St. Joseph being the patron saint of builders and carpenters, a light bulb went off,” Elliott said. And that first spring back in March 2006, the school held its inaugural altar.
    “It’s a simple family affair,” said Elliott, the altar co-coordinator.
    Students in the food nutrition class bake the bread, teachers bake cookies together and many other students, their families and alumnae bake the fava beans and make cookies, she said. Class board members helped assemble bags with cookies, a prayer card, blessed bread and a fava bean given to altar viewers.
    Elliott said she has been delighted to promote this unique New Orleans tradition especially to students and faculty who have never experienced a St. Joseph Altar. 
    This year’s altar will be blessed on March 19 at 7:30 a.m. by Dominican Father Michael O’Rourke, the school chaplain, and will remain open to the public until 6 p.m. Food remaining when the altar is broken down is given to Ozanam Inn.
De La Salle
    Registrar Marilyn Piglia D’Antoni started the St. Joseph Altar tradition at De La Salle in 2006 while she taught eighth grade religion after Hurricane Katrina. She said she wanted students to be aware of important feast days in the Catholic church.
    She continues to coordinate the altar and invites every at De La Salle student to donate Italian cookies, fruits, vegetables, flowers and make donations to buy the specialty cakes and breads needed on the altar.
    The altar will be blessed March 19 at 9:15 a.m., followed by viewing until 4 p.m. Eighth graders will perform the “Tupa, Tupa” Holy Family playlet, and the rosary will be recited at 11:30 a.m. As altar sponsors, eighth graders also will be fed the meatless red gravy with sawdust made by D’Antoni.
    Yakelis is excited to hear about all the schools joining in the tradition.
     “It’s wonderful to see Catholic high schools involved,” Yakelis said. “It’s such a New Orleans tradition.”
    Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.

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