Members of the Provenza family have gathered almost every Saturday since Christmas to bake and plan the St. Joseph's Altar at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Shreveport. While family members have participated in St. Joseph's Altars at other churches, this is the first time in decades the Altar has been set up at the Catholic Church where it originated in the early 1900s. "Through time, our mothers and grandmothers didn't let us help," said Rosemary Provenza Robinson. "And we started losing them. As we lost them, we lost a tradition."
Andrea Provenza Madden has been working to bring it back. She's researched the history and worked with their relative, Msgr. Earl Provenza, to reestablish the tradition at Holy Trinity. Every weekend, it's her house that is transformed into a bakery. The kitchen is for baking and mixing, the dining room is for rolling and shaping dough, and the living room is for icing cookies. The family turns out hundreds of biscotti and italian cookies every weekend. "It's a labor of love," said Madden. "I think my children understand what it mwans to my parents who are still here, and the many cousins, nieces, and nephews." Alongside Madden in the dining room, is her son, Charles rolling out biscotti dough. He already knows the family recipe by heart. "It's interesting. We have all the family here and I get to hear all the stories told," said Charles. "There's great laughs and alot of fun."
The Altar itself originated in Sicily in the Middle Ages. According to legend, the people of Sicily appealed to their patron saint, Joseph, during a time of famine and drought. When the rains came and the crops were successful, the community made an altar of good fortune and thanksgiving for the community. Every year, Italians with Sicilian roots prepare a St. Joseph's Altar, not only to honor their patron saint, but to preserve this tradition. The Altar takes place during the feast honoring St. Joseph, which usually falls in March. It is several tiers high, and is adorned with baked goods shaped like symbols of faith, flowers, and fruits. "It's deepened my faith," said Madden. "We use all the symbols of the Catholic faith." During a special mass, children portray the holy family and special angels. They are often served at a special table during the feast.
Finally, italian pastries and cookies such as biscotti are given out to congregation members in a spirit of goodwill. "I'm sure my grandmother is sitting in a rocker in heaven, and is glowing to know we are doing this," said Robinson. "They worked hard to come to this country and bring their faith with them." Their descendants are keeping that faith alive, and already are preparing for next year's Altar.