The Sicilians, weary from a long drought, and bordering on famine, prayed to St. Joseph to end their suffering. Their prayers were answered, and rain teemed from the sky. The crops survived. The famine was staved off. A feast day was established — St. Joseph’s Day — and when the Sicilians found their way to New Orleans in the 1880s, they brought their feast and its attendant altars with them.
My Uncle Joe had a large statue of St. Joseph holding the baby Jesus in his house. On the Feast of St. Joseph, or St. Joseph’s Day, he would take it out of the corner of his parlor — he called it a parlor — and put it in a place of prominence. Then he would throw open the doors to his storm cellar, walk down a flight of creaky wooden stairs, and emerge with what looked like a long, legless picnic table. After another trip, he would return with four pieces of threaded pipe that screwed into the bottom of the table to make the legs. The table would then stretch between two rooms of the house, St. Joseph sat at the head of the table, my large Sicilian family at its sides, and large family-style plates of food bowing it in the middle. My great-grandfather, who spoke little English would drink homemade wine, give me and my cousins dollar bills. We were rich. And until I moved to New Orleans, I thought my family were the only ones who celebrated this day. Now, I not only celebrate the day, but the night, too, a rich pageant both foreign and familiar, that could only happen here.
While St. Joseph’s Day celebrations and altars have disappeared elsewhere, in New Orleans they have flourished. In our uniquely Catholic city the calendar is different, and the secular and ecclesiastic merge; the liturgical calendar guides us as much as the Gregorian calendar does. Traditions and cultures are easily subsumed here, distinctions are lost, boundaries are crossed, and new customs are formed.
It is no accident that one of the holiest days in Catholicism is one of the holiest nights in the Black Masking Indian tradition: St Joseph’s Night. It’s a tradition built around songs and chants, dance and feathers. Where Indians don their suits for the final time until next Mardi Gras, the end of their own personal liturgical calendar.
Saint Augustine’s Church in the Tremé, the oldest black Catholic church in the country, was the first church in the city to allow the Sicilians to worship. Many Sicilians settled in and around the neighborhood, especially in the Lower French Quarter, which became known as “Little Palermo,” referring to the Sicilian capital. And during this time the black community and the Sicilian community intermingled and intermarried and customs were exchanged. To this day, St Augustine’s Church builds a St. Joseph’s Altar, breaking the altar with a feast at noon.
When I asked Big Chief Shaka Zulu if this comingling was the best explanation behind the St. Joseph’s Night celebrations, he concurred, and he added, “Yeah, because they didn’t want to have to get a permit from the city.”
As the Sicilians partied into the night, the Indians could hide in plain sight, taking part in the festivities, which were already familiar to them.
Before Super Sunday, the Indians only came out on Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s night, the most important days in their tradition.
“The old Indians said that (Saint Joseph’s) was night of peace for the Indians …a lot of Indians used to have lights on their suits for St. Joseph,” Zulu explained.
The way the light catches the suits at sunset, transitioning from dusk to darkness, is transformative. Sequins become stars, rhinestones turn to meteors and moons. Face-paint creates wraith-like visages. Chiefs cast outsized shadows and the Wildman becomes even more terrifying. The Indians roam their neighborhoods, cloaked in darkness. It is more intimate than the block party of Super Sunday, more sacred than the raucousness of Mardi Gras. It is a communion of cultures and traditions on display, a continuum from day to night.
Saint Augustine Catholic Church
1210 Governor Nicholls St, New Orleans, LA 70116, USA