Friday, January 29, 2010

St. Joseph's Altar

Photograph by Anna Maria Chupa
In March 1987, I had to attend a meeting in New Orleans and Moody accompanied me.  We went early because a friend, Al Gourrieu, invited us to a St. Joseph's Altar.  We had never attended one, nor did we know anything about St. Joseph, but we happily accepted.

According to an article by Sharon Keating, (from the tradition began at the end of the nineteenth century, brought to America by Sicilian immigrants. At one time, they were on the brink of starvation because of drought in their native country. They turned in prayer to St. Joseph, and soon, the rains came, the crops grew, and the people were saved. To thank their patron, they gave him back the gift they were given, in the form of a feast laid on an "altar." The altar features three tiers, representing the Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph presides on the top level, surrounded by candles, flowers, and of course, food.

Many families believe that having a St. Joseph Altar can bring good fortune. It is common to hear stories about favors received (a loved one’s recovery from an illness, for example) which are in turn attributed to the family’s dedication to St. Joseph.

Fava beans, used as fodder for cattle in Sicily, were consumed by the starving inhabitants prior to St. Joseph's intervention. They are now featured on every altar, as blessed "lucky beans." If you keep one, you will always have money, or so the saying goes, and we promptly put our beans in our wallets.

Everyone was given a sheet of paper, asked to write their wishes for the future, and then burn the paper in a large metal bowl.  Moody and I looked at each other, trying to hide our skepticism and questioning whether this would work. Our answer came the next day.

We had no idea that our fate was about to change, and to this day, we credit attending the St. Joseph Altar for transforming our lives.

The next day, Saturday, we met Ruth Love for cocktails. Out of the blue, I became very anxious.  For some reason, I was compelled to return home.  I told Moody and Ruth that I was going back to the hotel to pack and call airlines to check on seat availability for Sunday.  Moody reminded me that my meeting (the reason we had come to New Orleans) had not even begun and that we had non-refundable tickets.  I insisted that I could make it happen; we were going home.  With a quiet anxiousness, I walked back to our hotel, alone.

All of the airlines I called said the same thing, no seats to Detroit.  On a whim I called Midwest Airlines and was told that they had only two seats available on an afternoon flight to Chicago.  I figured that if we took that flight, we could rent a car and drive back to Michigan, if we couldn't get a flight to Detroit. Midwest even agreed to take our tickets and just charge us a small fee.

After completing the arrangements, I started to pack.  The phone rang.  It was a student from the University of Michigan asking if Moody could return tomorrow, Sunday, because Black Action Movement III had started and the University was shut down.  Jesse Jackson was due on Sunday to help with negotiations and he needed Moody to assist in the discussions.  I told the student no problem, I had already changed our tickets.

Moody returned, shaking his head at my crazy impulse. As I was telling him about the call from the student, the phone rang again.  It was a Vice President of the University with the same request. Could we return to Ann Arbor tomorrow?


  1. Christella - I am a strong believer in physicalizing our intentions. From an early age I was taught that graven images were blasphemous, but I could never see why. I think our world is just a medium to work out, do physical therapy for intentions and ideas.

    This story is a powerful example of working in the mystical realm of intuition. My backyard alter (that I posted as #10 in response to your tag of Things That Make Me Happy) is very much like St. Joseph's Altar. I have rice instead of beans, but the intention is the same. I think I will add the burning of my wishes for the future. Some friends and I did this on New Year's Eve around a fire pit, but I like the idea of doing it more often.

    There's nothing wrong with literalizing and formalizing our heartfelt expressions. This is what you do in your paintings.

    Can Al Gourrieu sing like Al Jarreau?

  2. Funny, Gourrieu and Jarreau. Never thought about that. But no, he doesn't sing.

    You're right. Sometimes you have to go with your intuition.

  3. That's so amazing! I have learned from experiences like that to never pass up a feeling or intuition. It is there for a reason.

    This is the first time I've heard of St. Joseph's Altar. What is done with all of the goodies after the celebration?

  4. After the celebration I attended all food that was left was given to people who needed it. (Homeless, shelter, etc.) I'm now sure about other celebrations as that is the only one I have attended.

  5. I've never heard of St. Joseph's Altar either - thanks for the information.

    I am working on a piece that I will post on my blog about women's intuition - your post gave me another perspective on it. Thanks Christella!