Over the course of the last week, members of St. Mary’s Church have been busy preparing for the annual St. Joseph’s Altar.

Saint Joseph is one of the most beloved saints among Italian-Americans. As the patron of workers and the protector of the family, he is honored with a feast on March 17. Reasons for the altar vary from giving thanks to a favor granted to the healing of a sick loved one. It is also an opportunity for the local people to help the less fortunate.

In honor of the patron saint, Joseph of the Sicilians and the Universal Church, an altar will be will made at St. Mary’s Parish. Each year, the altar is laden with food and flowers to celebrate St. Joseph’s Feast Day.

The ancient tradition of the altar goes back to the middle ages. At that time, a severe drought ravaged Sicily. As a result, the crops failed and a large amount of people died of famine. The peasants prayed to God for rain and they also prayed to St. Joseph to intercede with God on their behalf. They promised if the rain came they would have a special feast to honor God and St. Joseph.

The rains came and the crops were planted. With the harvest, the people prepared a feast of foods from their crops.

In honor of that feast, St. Mary’s volunteers prepare authentic Sicilian dishes for the annual Feast Day.

Volunteers have been busy baking at home and others who come to the church have made more than 10,000 cookies. The small crunchy delights of goodness are sought after not only by the children who attend the feast, but by adults as well.

The volunteers have made cookies in all flavors such as the round chocolate spice which are symbolic of the rocks Jesus is said to have played with as a child. The pignolata are small cone shaped cookies symbolic of the pine cones.  The many St. Joseph’s Day cookies are stuffed with figs and shaped into patterns, with different icings drizzled on top and flavored with almond, lemon, anise and other spices.

But, the feast does not end with the cookies, but there are delicious food dishes to represent the harvest.

One of the traditional and most beloved dishes prepared is Pasta Milanese, which also is the leading entree’ on the altar. The rich tomato sauce is made with a fish base of sardines or anchovies. It also includes wild anise greens, pignola and currants. To finish it off, the pasta dish is topped with fried, seasoned bread crumbs to represent the sawdust of St. Joseph the carpenter.

In addition to the pasta dish, the alter includes a large display of fruits, vegetables,a variety of seafood and special breads. One of the seafood items served on St. Joseph’s Day includes a whole, stuffed redfish. The stuffing is made of Italian bread crumbs, shrimp, crab meat, vegetables and Italian cheeses.

Most of the vegetables are prepared as part of a frittata. But the main vegetable attraction is the stuffed artichokes, which are boiled, dipped in a batter and fried. In addition, there will be various casseroles which include artichokes or beans.

The blessing will begin after 10 a.m. mass.

But, before the people attending the dinner can be served, the seven people representing the Holy Family is served their meal. The people representing the Holy Family are served small portions of each food on the altar. The ritual is solemnly observed and usually accompanied by prayer and hymns.

“Everyone is invited to come,” said Rosalie Clark, of St. Mary’s Church. “There is no charge for the public to come.”

The many volunteers begin serving at noon at the parish hall located at 9th and Cherry Streets.

Before leaving, guests are encouraged to get a fava bean. Everyone can use a green fava bean which is known as the “Lucky Bean” and is dried, roasted and blessed. It has been said that the person who carries it with them will never have financial worries and their “pocketbook” will never be empty.

All donations collected will go to area soup kitchens in addition to the leftover food. The donations will also go to charitable organizations in Orange.

Carmen Lucia, Rose Marie Tarver, Mary Ann Scofield and Rosalie Clark are busy boxing up the cookies after a busy day of baking at St. Mary’s Parish Hall in preparation for the annual St. Joseph’s Altar on Sunday.