The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles opened a new temporary exhibition this month, St. Joseph’s Tables: Expressions of Devotion, Charity, and Abundance, which explores the cultural-religious tradition of St. Joseph’s Tables. The table altars are among the richest expressions of Italian American cultural identity and embody a living tradition that has transcended ethnic lines.
St. Joseph is one of the most venerated saints in Christianity: He is the patron saint of immigrants, workers, unborn children, refugees, fathers, and craftspeople, among others. According to tradition, the practice of creating large food altars, or St. Joseph’s Tables, dates to the Middle Ages, when there was a severe drought and famine in Sicily. The peasants prayed to St. Joseph, and when the rains arrived, they organized a celebration in his honor. This event became an annual tradition held around St. Joseph’s feast day, March 19.
Sicilian immigrants brought this practice with them to the United States. The table altars, long orchestrated by women, are erected as an expression of gratitude or in fulfillment of a vow made to St. Joseph. They were originally constructed in private homes before expanding into churches and community centers. Because the tables are blessed, they are considered an intersection between the sacred and the profane. St. Joseph feast day celebrations typically include a large community meal at which all are welcomed, and charity is extended to those in need.
While the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA) is not the first museum to host a St. Joseph’s Table, the exhibition is designed to communicate the significance of this tradition to those who may be unfamiliar with the practice. St. Joseph’s Tables: Expressions of Devotion, Charity, and Abundance also chronicles the life of St. Joseph, the man who is often referred to as “the silent saint,” and traces the saint’s rise to prominence in the Catholic Church. It examines the history of St. Joseph’s Tables from their beginnings in Sicily through their transplantation to diasporic communities in the United States. The exhibition also showcases contemporary manifestations of St. Joseph’s feast day celebrations in Iowa, New York, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California, among other locations, as well as contemporary practices in Sicily.
The focal point of St. Joseph’s Tables: Expressions of Devotion, Charity, and Abundance is an elaborate, three-tiered altar, which occupies over 125 square feet of floor space, and contains hundreds of items that carry symbolic and historical meaning. Italian American Museum of Los Angeles director and historian Marianna Gatto curated the table-altar and wrote the exhibition. Among the items displayed are traditional St. Joseph’s breads, or pane di San Giuseppe. The large, handmade, ornate pictographic breads are also known as vasteddi, cucciddati, and squartucciati. The breads take many shapes, including crosses, ladders, chalices, hearts, wreaths, fish, sandals, bundles of wheat, and St. Joseph himself. One of the breads references the eyes of St. Lucy, the martyred Sicilian saint, while another depicts all five decades of the Rosary. Many of the breads weigh over ten pounds.
To source the items for the exhibition, the IAMLA issued a call to Italian American communities nationwide. Italian Sons and Daughters of America and the Calandra Institute were among the organizations that helped the museum spread the word. Individuals and institutions across the country responded, offering images, recipes, traditional breads, cookies, and other items. The IAMLA also contacted various bakeries known for producing St. Joseph’s bread, including the century old DiCamillo Bakery in upstate New York, which was founded by Italian immigrants Tomaso and Addolorata DiCamillo in Niagara Falls in 1920. Using a horse-drawn wagon, they delivered freshly baked bread to customers across the city. Michael Di Camillo, third generation co-owner of the bakery was happy to support the exhibition, sending the museum ten of the fourteen shapes of St. Joseph’s bread that the bakery produces. The IAMLA also looked to collaborative institutions in various parts of the country, such as the Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa and the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans. It received contributions from New York; Houston Texas; Independence, and Kansas City, Missouri; Pueblo, Colorado; Des Moines, Iowa; Sidell, and New Orleans, Louisiana; elsewhere in California; and Lodi, New Jersey, among other places.
The contributions that participants sent are as diverse as their makers. The altar’s impressive, pastry-like breads—vasteddi, cucciddati, and squartucciati—are made using a variety of techniques, including spreading a fig mixture between two thin sheets of dough and carving portions off the top layer of dough to create intricate designs. This culinary art form first emerged during Sicily’s Baroque period. Food historian and New Orleans resident Sandra Scalise-Juneau was among the donors of this traditional culinary art form, which she refers to as cucciddati. Over the years, Scalise-Juneau has led workshops to instruct younger generations in this century old tradition.
The exhibition also highlights St. Joseph feast day traditions in lesser-known Italian American communities, as well as the foods and practices connected to the event. The southern Colorado city of Pueblo, Colorado has been home to a large number of Italians, primarily Sicilians, for over 130 years. Italian Americans, many of whom hailed from Lucca Sicula, Sicily, began settling in Pueblo during the 1890s. Many were drawn by opportunities to work in the steel mills, smelters, and railroads, as well as in ranching and agriculture. At that time, Mexicans and Mexican Americans constituted the majority in Pueblo, and with the arrival of European immigrants, namely Italians and Slavs, Catholicism helped bridge ethnic divides. The earliest known St. Joseph’s Table in Pueblo took place in 1890, and today the ritual is carried out by descendants of the immigrants who introduced the tradition to Pueblo 130 years ago, as well as by members of the city’s Mexican American and Slavic American communities. Born in Lucca Sicula, Sicily, Josephine Pagano Gagliano has hosted many St. Joseph’s Tables since she settled in Pueblo in 1964. The table altars Gagliano has constructed represent the fulfillment of vows she has made to St. Joseph as well as expressions of gratitude for the family’s good fortune. Gagliano’s friends in Pueblo—fellow Sicilian Americans Kathy Giannetto, Fran Palmieri, and Katrina Maurello— assist with the altars, baking bread and cookies, and preparing food to feed over 500 people. The family’s business, Gagliano’s Italian Market, a decades’ old Italian grocery and deli in one of Pueblo’s historic Italian enclaves, has provided the location for the St. Joseph’s Tables. Gagliano, Giannetto, Maurello, and Palmieri baked several of the cucciddati featured in the exhibition, including an enormous chalice, cross, and heart, as well as a saw and hammer (St. Joseph’s carpenter’s tools.)
The religious artifacts displayed as part of the exhibition reveal how devotion to St. Joseph currently is and historically has been widespread among Italian Americans. A ceramic sculpture of the Holy Family from 1890s Sicily—one of the few items the Palazzolo family brought with them to the United States—which has been displayed on St. Joseph’s Tables both in Italy and the United States is showcased. A century-old ceremonial banner from the Congregazione di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Congregation) a mutual benefit society founded in Pueblo, Colorado in the early 1920s, is also on display. St. Joseph prayer books, which Italian American women used to lead daily novenas in the historic Italian American enclave of Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, demonstrate how prominently St. Joseph figures in the religious life of diasporic communities. Vintage linens, handmade by the grandmothers of museum staff are also featured on the table. Sacramental wine produced by the family-owned and operated San Antonio Winery, a Los Angeles-based winery founded in 1917 by Italian immigrants which is today one of the nation’s largest producers of Communion wine, completes the table. The exhibition also features excerpts from films that capture St. Joseph’s feast day traditions in the United States and Sicily. One of the films, Ringraziamenti, was the recipient of a Russo Brothers Film Forum grant.
“This exhibition offers an intimate look at a much-revered ritual that, for many Italian Americans, exists at the very heart of our cultural identity,” says Marianna Gatto, executive director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. “Because many IAMLA visitors are not of Italian extraction, the exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to experience and preserve this tradition and impart it to diverse cultures,” Gatto continues. “It also encourages us to embrace the themes central to St. Joseph’s Tables, which are highly relevant to our times, including community interconnectivity and concern for the less fortunate.”