Xavier’s St. Joseph altar is a cultural learning tool

Cuccidata in the shape of hearts, crosses, fish, the letters J.O.E. and even the African continent were created March 2 by Xavier University of Louisiana students for the university’s second annual St. Joseph Altar. 
 he altar will be open March 19 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. in the administration building chapel. Deacon Harold Vincent, professor emeritus, will bless the altar at noon.
   Local Italian historian Sandra Scalise Juneau and her daughter Therese Fury made a return visit to Xavier March 2 to share recipes and the art of making cuccidata – Italian fig cookies – with students.

“You are participating in a tradition that goes back centuries,” Juneau told students.
   The tradition originated in Sicily as an homage to St. Joseph to whom Sicilians prayed when there was a famine. The fava bean sustained Sicilians during the famine, and the altar was a way of sharing their bountiful harvest.
   Juneau readily helped students throughout the morning and furnished her Italian cookie recipes, telling students how her family didn’t write down recipes and she had to watch and ask relatives to discover the ingredients.
   “A recipe is just a guideline,” Juneau said. “You want to own it and make it your own.”
   And own it Xavier students did as they mixed, rolled and shaped the flour dough into whatever shape they wanted, and then filled it with a fig mixture (with honey, cinnamon and the secret ingredient of black pepper) Juneau had prepared in advance and finished it off with another dough layer like a pie.

   Juneau called the dough their “blank canvas” and demonstrated how to decorate it with special designs using tools inherited from her grandparents. One tool – in the shape of a three-leaf clover – makes a flower design that represents the Trinity. She said her grandmother used to pray, “Gesu, Maria and Guiseppe and Maria” when she carved her cuccidata.
   In between the dough rising, students watched a short video Juneau produced about St. Joseph Altars filled with photos of her family’s altars.
Caritas, a way of life
   Dr. Kim Vaz, associate dean of Xavier University’s College of Arts and Science, brought the St. Joseph Altar tradition to the university in 2012, having been fascinated by it since childhood. She said she saw parallels between St. Katharine and St. Joseph. Both lived a life of “caritas,” a spiritual and selfless love for all and giving charity and empathy to the suffering. St. Katharine Drexel was ahead of her time in the social justice mission of providing education to Indian and African-American students, and St. Joseph, too, decided to do what was right but not necessarily according to the custom at the time to accept Mary as his wife even though she was pregnant and he was not the father.
   The altar “is a way to remember to do things with courage, to act and do things when it’s right and fair, even though it may not be popular,” Vaz said. “It’s also fun and creates community and teaches our students a tradition that’s local that everyone in New Orleans can enjoy, not just Catholics.”
   Teacher Cocoa-Michelle Williams, English 1020 composition teacher at Xavier, said this is part of freshman seminar, a one-hour course that includes a book and discussions on New Orleans culture.
   This year, freshmen students are reading “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and will write an essay comparing the sacred space described in Baldwin’s novel to the sacred space of the St. Joseph Altar. Williams said learning first-hand about the altar is a way students can contribute to preserving this New Orleans tradition.
   “Xavier has a unique culture, both black and Catholic and a diversity from all over the world,” Williams said. “Like many traditions that are preserved in New Orleans, the St. Joseph’s altar at Xavier represents a cultural gumbo. Each item on our altar is prepared by different hands, and those hands bring to the altar their own story and connection to its tradition.”
   Some students enjoyed the activity so much that they returned to make a different cuccidata this year. Students from campus ministry also participated.
   “We wanted to come because it was fun, and we are contributing to part of the culture down here in New Orleans,” student Jessica Minor said about returning and learning about the Sicilian people and the rich culture they brought to New Orleans.
   In addition to the cuccidata for the altar, Xavier faculty and staff collectively make their favorite pralines and cookies. Theresa Walker from Human Resources makes 200 almond cookies. Alumni donate bread and others donate money to buy fava beans.
   “This continuity of cultures fascinates me,” Juneau said.
   Monetary donations to the altar benefits the Xavier University Mission Student Emergency Fund, awarded to students in dire financial need.
   Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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