St. Joseph’s Feast Day, A Sicilian Tradition Alive in Queens

Happy St. Joseph’s Day!!!

My hunch is that you’ve most likely heard of St. Patrick’s Day but St. Joseph’s Day? Not so much.

As the husband of Mary and the foster-father of Jesus, St. Joseph is the patron saint of families and heads of families, workers, and for a peaceful death. We know very little about his life according to the Gospel texts but the small bits of information we do have indicate a life where he had to make some pretty tough decisions. It has been argued that he lived in an age of anxiety, much like we do today.

Popular lore says that Sicilians beseeched St. Joseph for rain during a severe drought in the Middle Ages. In response to answered prayers, they celebrated his feast day on March 19 by attending Mass and preparing a table filled with an abundance of food. This table has come to be known as a St. Joseph’s Altar, full of loaves of bread and baked goods shaped into popular Christian symbols. It also includes wine, fish, and other symbols that typically represent St. Joseph such as lilies, hammers, and nails. Even breadcrumbs may be found on the table representing the sawdust of a carpenter. Meat is absent from the altar because the feast day falls during the season of Lent when Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays. Altars are a physical space used to create a connection between the human and divine worlds. In this case, believers use the St. Joseph altar to place a petition or give thanks for prayers answered.  This tradition arrived in America with the Sicilian immigrants but it has spread to other ethnic groups who are interested in celebrating St. Joseph.  In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the creation of a St. Joseph altar is shared by many members of the Catholic community.

In my household, we celebrate St. Joseph’s Day for several reasons. My Italian-American husband is one-quarter Sicilian and he and many of his ancestors are named Joseph. Today, we eat a traditional dessert called Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s cream puff), a puff pastry filled with either a vanilla custard or ricotta cream (think cannoli) filling.  To buy my pastries, I head to the quintessential Queens neighborhood known for its large Italian-American population, Howard Beach, home to American Idol contestant Pia Toscano and the late John Gotti, former head of the Gambino organized crime family.  Here, I go to Pasticceria La Torre for deliciously fresh and authentic Italian pastries and baked goods.  Their St. Joseph’s cakes are no exception (below left is one filled with vanilla custard and on the right is the one filled with ricotta cream)!

I also cook Pasta con Sarde or in Sicilian, Pasta chi Sardi, a traditional Sicilian pasta dish with sardines and fennel. It is said that wild fennel and sardines are abundant at this time of year all throughout the island. In Palermo, this dish is called Pasta di San Giuseppe in honor of St. Joseph.  The recipe I use is from Micheal Franco‘s blog, Live to Eat.

Buona Festa di San Giuseppe!

Pasticceria La Torre
158-12 Crossbay Boulevard
Howard Beach, NY  11414
(718) 843-2306
http://www.latorrebakery.com

A Tradition from Ponza, Italy Continues: The Feast of San Silverio

Religion. Politics. Power. Plots. Exile. Death.

Tile Rendering of Ponza's Main Port

All these ingredients create a perfect recipe for a dramatic plot.  But residents of Ponza, the largest of the Pontine Islands off the Italian coast in the Tyrrehenian Sea, celebrate a man whose life experienced them all.  The Ponzese annually celebrate the feast day of their patron saint on June 20 with a Roman Catholic Mass, a street procession with the statue, and abundant food.  Accused of treason for another’s political gain, Pope Silverius was deposed in the early 6th century.  Despite numerous attempts to prove his innocence, he was exiled to Palmarola, a harsh and rugged island 8 miles from Ponza, where he died.

The Ponzese were among the surge of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s.  Many arrived in New York City and eventually settled in the Bronx.  Like most immigrants, they continued their cultural traditions, one of which was the feast day celebration of their patron saint.  A fraternal society organized the Bronx celebration, which would mimic the one in Ponza.  After Mass at Our Lady of Pity Roman Catholic Church (now a closed parish on 151st Street near Morris Avenue), the faithful would process behind the statue throughout the neighborhood.

Hymn to San Silverio

By the mid 20th century, irreverent onlookers would throw eggs and bottles from building windows onto the processors.  In response, society member Ercito Mazzella offered to donate 81 acres of land in Dover Plains, NY that he recently purchased.  Located approximately 70 miles north of the Bronx, Mazzella originally intended to develop the land but instead, urged the society to raise funds to build a shrine that would serve as a permanent site for future processions to be held in peace.  In 2012, the San Silverio Shrine in Dover Plains will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

A Mass celebration and a small procession continues to be held every June 20 in the Morris Park section of the Bronx.  A week later, on Sunday morning, the shrine in Dover Plains hosts another celebration attracting hundreds of families, all of whom are descended from or somehow connected to the island of Ponza.

Fr. Ciro Iodice, OFM, sailed to the United States from Ponza on the Andrea Dorea in 1956, the ship’s penultimate voyage before it sank.  For the last 30 years, he has celebrated Mass at the shrine, driving several hours from Massachusetts to do so. He explained that many people participate in a procession because the saint is invoked for a specific intention or thanked for an answered prayer.  “A procession is a solemn, spiritual dialogue where a person can be in communion with the saint, with other members processing, and with the earth…the surrounding elements, both visible and invisible.”

The procession snaked along a forested path, led by a marching band and Rev. Iodice followed by men who carried the statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and San Silverio with the rest of the participants behind them.  The procession lasted 30 minutes with a pause in the middle for prayer. Red carnations on San Silverio’s boat were distributed to the crowd and several people pinned money to the ribbons adorning the saint’s statue at the conclusion of the ceremony. These donations were visible signs of requests or thanks.

Guido Rivieccio carried the statue of San Silverio this year as he has done for many previous years.  “As a kid, I was involved with the feast in Morris Park and I’ve been carrying the statue for about 10-15 years,” said Rivieccio.  He does it to honor his parents pointing especially to his father who was standing a few feet away.  The elder Rivieccio carried the statue in New York and in Ponza as a young man.  Rivieccio tries to remain connected to his roots by attending this annual celebration and by traveling back to Ponza.  Four years ago, he tattooed an image of San Silverio on his entire right deltoid and bicep!

Over time, most societies formed by newly arrived immigrants whither away as the connection to the homeland becomes more distant.  Yet for generations, these American descendants of Ponza have gathered with their families to celebrate this annual tradition in Dover Plains for almost 50 years.  Their devotion to San Silverio and their connection to their roots have not died. Let’s hope they never do.