St. Joseph’s Altar unites Morganza

By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

Drive through Morganza during winter’s last gasp and one is likely to be tantalized by the savory aroma of Italian cookies in the oven, icing waiting to crown the delicacy.  

altar photo 2.tif

The San Guiseppe Ladies from St. Ann Church in Morganza bake cookies that will be used on the parish’s St. Joseph’s Day Altar on March 17 following the 10 a.m. Mass. Nearly 100 volunteers help make the altar a success.  Photo by Father Brent Maher | St. Ann Church, Morganza 

 

Those aromas might be especially strong if passing the houses of Doretha Debetaz or even Rosie Laurent.  

Of course, drive anywhere near Shirley Sorpano’s house and one is sure to detect the winsome fragrance of Italian bread, minutes away from being baked to perfection.  

The ladies, along with up to 100 other volunteers, spend late February and early March making the final preparations for the St. Joseph’s Altar at St. Ann Church in Morganza, continuing a tradition that dates back close to 50 years, although the exact date is one of those whimsical mysteries that offer intrigue and coziness to any small town.  

What is known is the altar started out on a much smaller scale in the church more than 50 years ago. But it was then moved to the parish hall, where it has continued to grow.  

“It has gotten bigger but I don’t remember when we came to the hall,” said 93-year-old Adele Robillard, who helped establish the first altar in the hall. “And the number of helpers has certainly grown.”  

Parishioner Bonnie Francois, whose mother, Laurent, bakes up to 1,300 cookies from her comfy kitchen in her comfortable home situated along Louisiana Highway 10, said initially parishioners were given bags with cookies that came off of the altar at the church. But the bags now contain not only cookies but bread and other goodies, including a fava bean, which is considered a symbol of good luck in the Italian tradition.  

Today, the San Guiseppe (the Italian name of St. Joseph) leaders and volunteers will serve up to 300 people.  

“Who knew it was going to go this long?” mused Marianna Wells, who was a member of the original group and is married to incoming Morganza mayor Woots Wells.  

“When we started they wanted everything white, white, white,” she added. “Italians like color, so when I started with it, I gave it color. We started putting the red under the white lace.”  

She added that through the years numerous religious statues and articles brought by parishioners have been added.  

“People want to bring them in and I try to work them in,” said Wells, who, along with the other volunteers clearly enjoy working in the altar.  

st. joseph's day altar photo 5.tif

The final product is stunning, as shown by the St. Joseph’s Altar at St. Ann Church in Morganza in 2018. Photo provided by Myrna Tuminello

 

So what goes into the planning and cooking? The good news is the food on the altar remains consistent each year .

But much work looms, starting with the cookies, and plenty of them. Debetaz bakes approximately 1,400 cookies during the course of several days, and along with anywhere from 12 to 15 helpers, ices the cookies once they cool.  

“We learned that we can make cookies ahead of time and can ice them the next day,” she said. “You have to let the cookies cool and after putting the icing on, we turn them over and let them cool again. Whoever can come will help us.”  

Laurent, 93, will bake 600 fig cookies and at least 600 Italian almond cookies. On a recent morning, her kitchen was a beehive of bakers, a joyous group that included four generations of her family.  

Of course, no St. Joseph’s Altar would be complete without pasta, dripping with Italian gravy. Francois said eight families make gravy from their own recipes, all “very good,” deftly sidestepping the vexing question of whose was the best. The gravies are then put together into a pot with boiled eggs.  

Each year, about 48 dozen eggs are used for the altar.  

On the morning of the altar, volunteers arrive early to begin cooking 44 pounds of pasta and slice 33 loaves of Italian bread to be served with the meals.  

“I don’t know how many pounds of Italian cheese,” Francois said.  

Added to that are 36 pounds of salad, and for years a parishioner has been grounding up bread crumbs, symbolic of saw dust because St. Joseph was a carpenter by trade.  

“You can put that on the pasta,” Francois said.  

Once completed, three chairs are set around a table placed at the front of the altar. Three young students, representing the Holy Family, are fed first, and no one else eats until they have completed their meal.  

St. Ann pastor Father Brent Maher said the St. Joseph’s Altar is important to the church because the church is alive in each community, each culture.  

“And that’s the beauty of it, is that traditions like the altar show the community saying this is our faith,” he added. “It takes on part of the personality, part of the culture, part of the identify of the worshippers, the families present there.  

“And the altar is our Italian heritage, it celebrates this is our faith. The family cultural dynamic is tied in with that, with so many of the traditional dishes.”  

Father Maher added the altar also had the communal aspect of binding the community by working for a common goal.  

“But the fact that it is centered around that aspect of faith, around St. Joseph, about service, about community, the serving of the Holy Family first, then serving of the community, shows the generosity of the church in so many ways,” he said. “People come and have a full belly and a full heart.”  

Those coming for meals include residents from a nursing home in New Roads. And once everybody has eaten, the food is distributed to the needy, shut-ins and others in the area.  

“The altar, the church, it brings us all together,” Rebetaz said. “It’s the backbone of the community.”  

“I continue to look forward to it and hope each year I can still participate,” she added, saying that she also does much of the decorating. 

altar photo 3.tif

St. Joseph and the infant Jesus stand watch as the St. Joseph’s Altar undergoes preparations at St. Ann Church in Morganza. Photo submitted by Father Brent Maher | St. Ann