When long-time friends and passionate Catholics Joycelyn Clementine and Earline Theophile spearheaded a St. Joseph Altar more than a quarter-century ago, they didn’t imagine that it would be around in 2018.
“We used to go to different St. Joseph Altars in houses,” Theophile said.
“And Earline asked lots of questions,” Clementine said. “St. Joseph planted the questions in Earline, and she asked me to host the altar. (Until that time) I had no intention of having an altar.”
The early altar committee was nine people; four are still alive: Clementine, Theophile, Jean Boyd, Margaret Steward. “Nine represents a novena,” Clementine said. “Nine turned into 56 that first year. I tell you this – it’s been (the members) and St. Joseph. We don’t go looking.”
In January, Clementine, Theophile, Florence, Beverly Dumas, Angela Sarpy, Earline Jones and Steward (Clementine’s childhood friend), Nadia Carter and Barbara Hampton, Jocelyn’s sister, met to organize this year’s altar, praying to St. Joseph in thanksgiving for his intercession on their behalf and others.
“Through the intercession of St. Joseph, God will answer prayers,” Clementine said.
“Never have I asked for something that praying to St. Joseph hasn’t been fulfilled,” Sarpy said. “St. Joseph gave me a job at the bank. I had him in my pocket when I went for the interview.”
“St. Joseph has given me everything I need,” said Steward, who mentioned having a knot on her breast, but results of a test she took on St. Joseph Day revealed nothing there.
“When I first came here randomly (to Clementine’s St. Joseph Altar), I needed four dinners for my in-laws who were handicapped,” Jones said. “I knew this was the place for me to be because it was an organization that helped the poor, homeless and handicapped. I said, ‘Lord, this is where I want to be, to join this organization.’” Jones has helped out ever since.
Visitors became helpers
Brumfield’s fellow St. Joseph the Worker Parish parishioner invited her to the altar, and she decided to help serve meals, make cookies and make altar backdrops and curtains.
Since none of the women are Italian, Clementine said Henrietta Victor and Betty Jones taught them Italian cookie making. Visitors to Clementine’s altar will find the customary cookies, but also handmade rosaries, St. Joseph cords and lap blankets. And, red gravy with meatballs is served instead of the meatless variety with sawdust. If St. Joseph Day falls on a Lenten Friday, courtbouillon is served.
Approximately 1,000 cookies were made for the 2017 altar. This year, there will be at least 700 bags filled with a rosary, St. Joseph prayer card, family prayer, a piece of bread and a cookie. The sick will receive a prayer blanket and a St. Joseph cord, which members say have comforted many.
“They told me how peaceful it was sleeping with the blanket,” Brumfield said about people she has known with cancer who retrieved one from the altar.
“I think this is one of the few altars where you leave with a rosary, and 90 percent of them are handmade,” Brumfield said.
“This has gotten many people out of the woods (from illness or any kind of suffering),” Sarpy said. “One person came back and told me, “I’ll never forget you. You took me out of the woods.’”
“St. Joseph is powerful,” Jones said.
Didn’t stop at 25
Because the active altar workers are getting older, they were planning on stopping the altar after 25 years.
“I wasn’t going to have it again, but I went to a Mass at Holy Rosary Church at 7 a.m. and went to St. Joseph’s statue and asked him if I should continue doing it. I asked for a sign,” Clementine said. “After Mass, I started walking, saying a 31-day novena to St. Joseph to figure out if I should continue. As I was praying, he spoke to me in this prayer. It was a sign I should do it. … I got three responses from St. Joseph that I should do it.”
Clementine knows that she reaches a lot of people – Catholics and non-Catholics – with her St. Joseph Altar that’s blessed by area priests, including Josephites from St. Augustine School.
“People are so happy when they come and remember each and every one of us,” Theophile said. “Joycelyn will give them as many rosaries and pamphlets as they want. She is kind-hearted. The altar inspires people to come back.”
“Our altar has always been an evangelization tool,” Clementine said. “You reach out to so many people. “You can’t imagine how many people are touched.”
Petitions left at the altar are prayed for at Mass at members’ churches – St. David, Corpus Christi, St. James Major and Our Lady of Guadalupe/St. Jude.
“As long as he gives me breath in my body, I will do everything I can to keep his altar going,” Clementine said.
Joycelyn Clementine’s altar is at 3533 Elysian Fields Ave. in New Orleans and will be open Sunday, March 18 and Monday, March 19 from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Food will be served March 19 starting around 11 a.m.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.