School community builds St. Joseph altar
By Mary P. Walker
St. Joseph Catholic School in Bryan was established in 1894. Under the inspiration of its patron saint, the school has a rich history of educating youth and serving the community. On March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, husband of Mary, the school community set out to honor him in a special way. After talking to parents and doing some research, secondary school principal Jennifer Pelletier learned about the Sicilian custom of building and decorating an altar in gratitude to St. Joseph for his love and generosity.
With many Catholics of this heritage living in the Bryan/College Station area, she felt that creating a St. Joseph altar would be a community-building experience that reinforced the classroom lessons.
"It is vital in our culture that the students be steeped in all the traditions of the church. They need to have a solid foundation of traditions and experiences to turn to when their faith is challenged," Pelletier said.
The custom of the altar is believed to have originated in the 1500s in Sicily. After praying to St. Joseph for rain, farmers created a three-tiered altar in thanksgiving. Prayer, feasting and feeding the poor were part of the celebration. When families of Italian and Sicilian heritage came to the U.S., they brought this custom with them.
Traditionally, the altar is draped in white and decorated with statues, confectionary masterpieces and flowers. Figs, plentiful in Sicily, are used in large decorated cookies. Each cookie represents a saint or religious symbol and has a spiritual meaning. Every year, families in the Bryan/College Station area sponsor altars, and the school drew from their expertise to build their own.
With ambitious plans, the students, parents, faculty, staff and members of the community went to work. Spring break was the week before the feast day, and many took their time off to come back to school to help. The gym was the only area big enough to accommodate the construction of the altar, the feast day Mass, and the traditional meal following the Mass. Boy Scout Troop 383 led the effort to put protective covering on the floor and constructed the structure of the altar.
Women with years of experience patiently taught a group of middle and high school girls how to make the traditional fig cookies. Mary Cash, one of these experts, has three generations of altar memories. Her grandmother, mother and other family members created altars. She wants to make sure the tradition continues and enjoyed passing on her knowledge to the students. The intricacy of the cookies required the use of specially crafted tools.
"They caught on so fast. They are very creative," Cash said. Other volunteers donated homemade cookies, pastries and cakes to fill the altar.
In addition to creating the altar, the school made a special effort to be spiritually prepared for the feast of St. Joseph. Prior to the feast, they made a nine-week novena to the saint, and prayed the rosary in Italian. On the feast day, Msgr. John McCaffrey and Father Ryan Higdon blessed the altar and celebrated Mass.
After Mass, the feasting began with rituals handed down for centuries. Three students, representing members of the Holy Family, processed through the gym, stopping and asking for food and shelter. They were refused at the first two stops. On their third try, they were invited to sit at a table and were served a festive meal. Other students, each representing a particular saint, were also served. After the Holy Family and the saints ate, the rest of the students enjoyed their meal.
The meal itself was a delicious spiritual meditation full of symbolism. Because the feast occurs during Lent, spaghetti with meatless sauce is the traditional main course. Bread crumbs, representing the sawdust of St. Joseph’s work as a carpenter, are sprinkled on top. Hardboiled eggs, representing new life, are added to the plate. Students bearing trays of the homemade cakes, cookies and pastries circulated through the gym, making dessert the favorite part of the meal.
Junior Ellie Lipscomb represented St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients. This saint has special significance for her because her mother is undergoing cancer treatment.
"It was an honor to be picked as a saint and know that the school is there for students going through difficult times. It showed that the school community will help us get through these challenges," Lipscomb said.
Pelletier believes the success of this year’s altar establishes it as a new tradition at the school. Freshmen Mary Starnes was one of the students who learned to make the fig cookies, and she served desserts to her fellow students.
"The altar was a good reminder to me that as Catholics we have to go out and serve the community. The experience of serving strengthened my relationship with other students, and helped build up the family atmosphere in the school," Starnes said.