By Beth Donze
It’s the price every homeowner in South Louisiana must eventually pay: re-armoring structures assaulted by scorching summers, heavy rains and winters that can feel as cold as Minnesota one day and swampy the next.
That time has arrived for Spanish Renaissance-style St. Joseph Church and its 99-foot-high bell tower, which rises majestically over the streets of Old Gretna. The elements have eroded most of the protective sealant covering the 91-year-old church’s stucco façade, causing visible cracks and a widespread algae bloom that pressure-washing alone can’t remedy.
To raise funds for the estimated $500,000 project, the parish will debut a new cookbook at its March 19 St. Joseph Altar.
“The Mother Church Cookbook” was culled, in part, from St. Joseph’s 400 registered families, who began dropping their favorite recipes into collection baskets at Masses last November.
“We were hoping for 300 recipes, but we ended up getting 500 – so many that we had to stop accepting them!” said Helen Williams, restoration committee chair, noting that the cookbook was designed to engage the parish and wider community in the fundraising effort.
To give the cookbook staying power as a fundraiser, and to make it pique the interest of cooks beyond Gretna, the collection boasts several unique sections.
For example, “Gretna Restaurants: Then and Now” offers recipes from establishments such as Gattuso’s, Thanh Thanh and The Red Maple, as well as signature dishes from restaurants that “ain’t dere no more” – a list that includes Whiteside’s, Berdou’s, Willy Coln’s Chalet and The Cottage.
Former patrons of LeRuth’s, a five-star restaurant based in Gretna from 1966-1991, will relish the chance to make its famous Crabmeat St. Francis (reprinted on page 11).
The cookbook also solicited Gretna city, police and fire officials, as well as every priest and deacon who served at St. Joseph Church over the last 40 years. Contributors include former pastors, Father Frank Caravella and Father Rick Day, and current pastor, Father Gary Copping, who shared his Stevia-sweetened recipe for Strawberry Ice.
The committee said it was a no-brainer to include a special cookbook section of nearly 50 recipes prepared and served at the parish’s famous St. Joseph Altar, which takes up much of the gym of the former elementary school.
“Our altar is arguably the largest in the state,” Williams said, noting that 1,500 to 2,000 people enjoy a meal of Pasta Milanese sprinkled with Mudrica (“sawdust” representing St. Joseph’s woodshop), four vegetable casseroles, fried catfish, bread, cake, wine and iced tea. Patrons go home with a bag of treats holding seven of the 14 types of cookies baked by the ministry’s raft of volunteers, a lucky bean and a holy card. Visitors dine free of charge and volunteers personally serve the elderly and those with special needs.
“Some people stay all day,” Williams said. “I’ve been told by media who cover our altar that we have restaurant-quality food at the altar.”
Spawned 14 churches
St. Joseph Church, completed in 1927, is the third church to grace the campus of the 1857-founded parish, Williams notes.
“The cookbook is named ‘The Mother Church Cookbook’ because St. Joseph is the mother church of 14 Catholic church parishes in West Jefferson, all the way to Grand Isle,” Williams said. “Our archbishop (Gregory Aymond) calls it ‘The Cathedral on the West Bank.’”
The $25 cookbook, available soon in the church gift shop, will be sold at the St. Joseph Altar March 19 from noon to 6 p.m., and at other events, including a school reunion in the spring and a chili cook-off on Oct. 27. The parish’s St. Joseph Day celebration will begin with 10:30 a.m. Mass in the church, located at 610 Sixth St. A procession to the gym and altar blessing will follow. For information on the cookbook or altar, call 368-1313.
To view a sampling of recipes from the new cookbook, pick up a copy of the Feb. 17 issue of the Clarion Herald.