St. Joseph Altar returns to Church of the Nativity after a year off due to pandemic

The tradition of a St. Joseph Altar has traveled from its birthplace in Sicily to all corners of the world. In 2010, Beth Haydel brought it from New Orleans to Thompson’s Station and the Church of the Nativity.

As an adult, Haydel became a parishioner of St. Rita Church in New Orleans. “There was a lady in the parish who used to do a huge St. Joseph Altar in her garage,” Haydel said.

Parishioners would line up outside the woman’s home to see the elaborate St. Joseph’s Altar and receive a bag of cookies. “At night, she would open her back yard, with music and a big meal,” Haydel recalled.

And it wasn’t just her parish, Haydel said. “People in New Orleans go from altar to altar to see them. Some are in the school gyms. They’re huge.”

“Usually in New Orleans they start making cookies and breads in January, because they’re feeding thousands of people from the altar.”

The bakery the Haydel family owned in New Orleans made specialty cakes and breads for St. Joseph Altars all over the city.

“When I moved to Nashville in 2006, I realized they didn’t have anything like that here,” Haydel said. She approached Father John Kirk, then the pastor of Church of the Nativity, about putting up a St. Joseph Altar on the weekend closest to the March 19 feast day. The first altar went up in 2010. “I had such a good response,” Haydel said. “People were just in awe of how beautiful it was.”

It’s now become a tradition at Church of the Nativity, and after a year off in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the St. Joseph Altar will return the weekend of March 19-21.

The tradition of the St. Joseph Altar evolved after the saint was credited with saving the people of Sicily from famine during a drought. In thanksgiving, the people held a huge feast in his honor, building altars that were filled with cakes and breads baked in the shape of nails, St. Joseph’s sandals, bibles, a crown of thorns, a crucifix and a fish, as well as specialty Italian cookies.

St. Joseph Altars, like the one at the Church of the Nativity, also include 12 bottles of wine representing the 12 Apostles, fresh cut bouquets and potted plants as reminders of the rebirth of Easter, and fava beans. The beans, which were usually used to feed livestock, were cooked and eaten by people during the famine. Since then, they have been considered good luck, said Barbara Schee, chair of this year’s St. Joseph Altar at Nativity.

Part of the tradition is helping the needy. At the Church of the Nativity, the parish has used the money raised from selling the breads and cakes, and any donations collected, to support the Pregnancy Center of Middle Tennessee.

This year’s St. Joseph Altar at Nativity will be somewhat limited because of the pandemic, Schee said. There won’t be any baked goods and the spaghetti supper usually held in conjunction with the altar had to be cancelled. 

“Hopefully, next year it will be back to normal,” Haydel said.W