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Italian Texans celebrate St. Joseph

In the late 1800’s groups of Italians, mostly from the towns of Corleone and Poggioreriale in Sicily, migrated to the Brazos Valley and settled in and around Bryan. By 1905 there were about 3000 Italians living in Bryan. They founded St. Anthony’s Catholic Church  and a little mission church in the country side, San Salvador.

Many of the names that fill the historic Catholic cemetery, Mt. Calvary, in Bryan, are some of the same family names you will hear around town now; Scarmardo, Ruffino,  Patranella, Palasota, Fazzino, and Lampo, are just a few of them. These Italian names are still names of some of the businesses, and streets of Bryan. They are woven into our history, part of our life, as so many of the descendants of those families are still with us here.

Some families still make traditional Italian St. Joseph altars, often in thanksgiving, if they have promised one to St. Joseph in response to prayers answered. When his feast day is coming up, people will get to hear there is an altar and thousands, (yes, I’m serious,) will come from all around. The family and friends hosting the St. Joseph altar will cook for days in preparation. All are welcome. Some years there are no St. Joseph altars. Some years there are several, and one can make a tour of the different houses where the celebrations are being held. These occasions are also considered a chance to share with the less fortunate. The tradition of these St. Joseph altars originated in Sicily, of which St. Joseph is the patron saint, and have several interesting customs associated with them that are still practiced here today.

I visited  Lillian Scarmardo Hughes and her husband, Tom, to learn more about St. Joseph altars, as they prepared to celebrate their own “small” St. Joseph altar celebration at their own home. They are expecting about 60 people.

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Msr. John McCaffrey, Tom and Lillian Hughes in front of the St. Joseph altar

 

There is a lot of variation in St.Joseph altars according to the people who make them. However, there are certain things that are traditional and defining. The altar is set up in a household or common building such as a parish hall or school. It is made up of three tiers to symbolize the Blessed Trinity, and also the Holy Family.

The top tier will hold an image of St. Joseph or of the Holy Family, surrounded by greenery, fruit, and flowers.

Next there will be at least three breads made for the occasion, each in a shape of a symbol of St.Joseph, of Jesus, of Mary. Lillian and Tom have chosen to represent the Holy family with a rosary for Mary, a cross for Jesus, and a hammer shaped bread for St. Joseph. These breads are called panne grosso, “big breads.” Lilly tells me that over the years on some altars around town, the tradition has grown to include other saints as well, and you will seesquartucciata made in the shape of the symbols of other saints as well. People who have a devotion to one of these other saints will bring breads over to represent them for the altar as well.

On Tom and Lillian’s home alter you can also see some lovely porcelain templates from Poggioreriale  for the beautiful intricate pastries made for the altars; fig cookies called cuccidatti.

Lillian and Tom raveled to Italy twice. Lilly was able to be in her grandfather’s home town (he and his brother had left for America in 1880) of Poggioreiale during the preparation of the St. Joseph altars there. She was even able to meet a blood cousin!

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She was welcomed enthusiastically to help make the squartucciati, the ornate fig cookies. and other foods. The women there were amazed that Lillian knew all about St. Joseph altars and how to make the various pastries. They were very moved that the tradition had been handed down and carried on in Texas by their people who immigrated there. It sounded like a magical moment. I could see the glow in Lillian’s eyes while she told me this story and showed me her pictures of it.

She plans to return to Sicily at least one more time in her life.

The cooking begins very early. It is usually a meatless spaghetti dinner and plenty is made so the poor can also be served. An egg is added to the sauce for each guest, to represent new life.

For nine days before the altar is actually presented, a novena to St. Joseph is prayed, along with a rosary sung in Italian.

At some point a priest will come and bless the altar.

Some common objects on the alar will be fava beans, which the Sicilians usually fed their cattle but were reduced to eating during a terrible drought and famine. They prayed to the patron of Sicily, St. Joseph and their prayers were answered. This is how St. Joseph altars began; in gratitude to St.Joseph.

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The flowers, vegetables and fruit represent the harvest and gratitude to God for His gifts and providence.

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There will also be wine to represent the wedding at Cana.

IMG_2045There are other symbols, as well, of St. Joseph, such as bread crumbs which represent saw dust.

There may be Squartucciatis made to look like sandals, carpentry tools, monstrances, crosses, doves, and other Christian symbols.

There are usually lilies at the altar, traditionally St. Joseph’s flower.

There is often a basket on the altar for people to put in their written petitions to St. Joseph.

On the day of St.Joseph’s feast, or the closest day the family can accommodate family and friends, the celebration is held.

There will be the Ceremony of Saints, during which people representing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, knock three times and ask for shelter. This is called the “Tupa tupa” part of the ceremony. They Holy Family is refused twice, but the third time are welcomed in, along with people representing a variety of other saints.

The person representing Jesus, most often a child, blesses the altar with holy water and a sprig of mint.

The Holy Family is served first in three small courses. Sometimes the host will wash their feet and hands. In some families the feet of children are kissed.

Everyone is served a small glass of wine as a token of unity and friendship.

Then the altar is “broken” and all are served. Everyone is welcome, plus there is plenty left over to go out and serve the poor of the community.

Lillian loves these celebrations and grew up with them. Her mother, Rosalie Scarmardo, is remembered for having been particularly talented in helping people with their altars

After the representatives of the Holy Family are served, a spaghetti dinner and general celebration takes  place. Everyone is sent home with a goodie bag of the ring cookies, fig cookies, a fava bean, and some holy cards of St. Joseph.

Be blessed, St. Joseph, be welcome among us, pray for us. 

Thank you so much to Lillian and Tom Hughes, and to Becky Scamardo for their help and generosity.

For more, please see my upcoming column in The Eagle on March 24, or read my post at ATX Catholic.  

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Novena to the child Mary for the feast of her Presentation in the Temple, day nine

To begin, make the sign of the cross and pray the Sh’ma, a prayer the little Mary would have grown up reciting every day with her Jewish family and community:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Holy Child Mary, gentle and humble of heart, you are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you are the fairest honor of our people!” (see Judith 15:9)

 

Reflection:

I wonder…. what did Little Mary see at the top of the Temple steps that made her ascend them so quickly, dancing with happiness? I think she saw what is promised to the pure of heart, not in the same way she later would in glory, but as she could on earth as the littlest and most clear-eyed of God’s children. Eve could see and talk to God originally. Mary reasonably could have too. Jesus offers this sight to us, when we believe and have hope that what we see dimly now we will see face to face as perhaps Mary did in that moment she looked up the Temple steps.

Maybe we can remember our Little Mother and try to “grow down, instead of up” as Shel Silverstein put it. Maybe we should carry this picture of Our Lady’s childhood close to our hearts that we may remember who we are and where we are going, that we might enter the Kingdom of God in the same way she ran up those steps. If the Kingdom is within us, why not start now? Ready, set… GO!

Last one up is a rotten egg!

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Little Mary, gentle, joyful, and humble of heart, make our hearts like your own, that we may reflect the love and life and joy that comes from the freedom of the children of God. 

Imagine Mary as a little girl; innocent, kind and wise. Take her hand and ask her to pray for you.  Think about your life, and what you need the most. Place your concerns in her hands to take to the Father. Know that her heart is love, and that it is filled with tenderness and open to the Spirit. She does not judge you, but sees you in humility, purity, and simplicity of heart. She sees who you are in God. That is what she sees. Open your heart to her.

Then pray, “Hail Mary…”

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Suggestion: Make an act of consecration to Mary today, or renew the one you have made. Do something or say something kind to a little girl in your life, and/ or donate to an organization that educates or benefits girls.

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A consecration to the Child Mary: 

My Little Mother, Sister, and Queen,

I give myself entirely to you;

and to show my devotion to you,

I consecrate to you this day my eyes,

my ears, my mouth, my heart,

my whole being without reserve.

Wherefore, Little Mother,

as I am your own,

keep me, guard me,

as your property and possession,

Make my heart like yours,

and let me live in the sweet companionship

of your brave and joyful spirit,

in constant awareness

of the tender

presence of the God.

Amen.

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Nina Maria

 

 

 

 

The little One : a meditation for Christmas

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Photo by Anugrah Lohiya on Pexels.com

Warm, soft, vulnerable and alive, this sleeping One in my lap. I caress the tiny forearm, touch the curled, unsure hands. I can’t stop kissing his fast-beating heart, listening to his unpracticed, uneven breath. I touch his soft, dark, baby hair, nuzzling the top of his head with my nose. His little feet, slightly cold- so tiny and perfect- have never yet touched the ground. I hold them in my hands to warm them. I kiss their satiny soles. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” my heart in wonder repeats, repeats. I press him to me, this Lord of mine, with a profound, peaceful, joyful gratitude and love, a protective love. He opens his eyes, still that deep slate gray of the newly arrived human. They hold the newborn’s sage, open gaze; mildly curious, seeming to drink in the powerful love pouring out of the utterly enchanted person looking back at them. He blinks innocently at the tears falling from my eyes into his.

 

I am cold, my arms flailing awkwardly and out of my control. I’m confused. I don’t know what’s happening. I need comfort, warmth, nourishment. And then I am warm, pressed soothingly all around. A deep, sweet peace flows into my mouth and through my body as my unruly hands tangle in her hair, Mama, Mama. The only thing I know is this love, this union, this protection and assurance. I relax completely.

I am that I am, Being, Love, Light and Life. I surround my Son, inhabit my Son, I am within my Son, I love my Son, I am my Son. I have remained what I have been and will be eternally, and I have become what I was not. In my love of humanity, I have finally become fully human, entering the world of time and space in the most profound and humble way. So great is my love, I have been conceived and born into this human cloud of unknowing, emptying Myself, taking the form of a slave, in order to free and divinize my beloved humanity, made of dust, that they might share my Divine Life.

Vulnerable, human, innocent and unknowing, be, oh Christian soul. I have shown you the way to Me: this little Child, this Way, this Truth, this Life, full of humility and trust, gentle, humble, simple, with the need, the open-ness of the newborn. Come to Me, forgetting everything but Love Itself, and be born again. Be little, be free, be loved. Never be afraid, it is I, the Little One, asking for your love.

Answer Me, say from the heart:

Truly, I have set my soul 

In silence and in peace

As the Divine Child has rest in His mother’s arms,

Even so, my soul.

Children of God,

Hope in the Lord forever. (a variation on Psalm 131)

On this Holy Night, take time to be little, humble, simple, trusting, and close to God, like a child.

 

Holy Name of Mary

“All generations to come will call me blessed.” Luke 1″48b

Today, September 12, the Church celebrates and reflects on the Holy Name of Mary.

According to custom, Our Lady’s parents would have named her eight days after her birth, like any other Hebrew girl. Most likely her parents had ordinary hopes for her. They would have the  joy of raising a daughter who would love them, learn from them, live and play and pray with them. They likely had expectations for her of a future husband and family of her own.

All these things Mary did, but in an extraordinary way, and for a purpose no one knew.

Her mother and father fittingly named her Mary (Maryam or Miriam.) I wonder if they were thinking of the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, who partnered with Moses and Aaron in leading his people to freedom through the Red Sea.

The Church sees the journey through the Red Sea as a metaphor prefiguring Baptism in Christ. This little one was a new Miriam, who would partner with her Son in His work of our Salvation.

I am enchanted by the fact that the origin of Mary’s name was most likely taken from ancient Egyptian; from mry “beloved” or mr “love.”  She is beloved and her name is love. That reminds me of Romans 1:7, which greets the Christians of Rome as, “Beloved of God and called to holiness.”  

In a way, every Christians’ name is “Love.”

The Son of Mary taught us that holiness is love.

As the Beloved Disciple said, “And we have come to know and believe in the love that God has for us. God is love; whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” 1 John 4:16

Blessed little Mary, I will take up your holy name, “Love,” many times each day. Come to me, and lead me through every challenge, singing of my victory.  Today as I honor your childhood, inspire me to walk ahead through all that life brings, made brave for love by the companionship of your spirit. May I may live in love, live in God, and God in me. Help me to follow Jesus with faith and simplicity of heart. 

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