By Jorge Dominguez
In anticipation of his March 19 feast day, St. Mel’s parish honored “the most popular saint of the world” – St. Joseph. Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto was the main celebrant of a Mass in Italian at the parish March 16.
It was a perfect mix of faith, family and cultural heritage. Two teenagers, dressed as Mary and Joseph, came into the church at the start of the entrance procession. At the altar, a statue of St. Joseph was surrounded by baskets of bread.
“Here at St. Mel’s, in Flushing, the Italian community is very strong,” Bishop Chappetto said. “It’s one of the largest Italian communities that we have in the diocese and they have a great devotion here to St. Joseph. We have this Mass every year in his honor, so I’m very happy to be here tonight with them.”
The devotion to St. Joseph is very deep in Italy and among Italian-Americans, but certain traditions related to this devotion come from specific Italian regions and towns. At St. Mel’s there is a large number of Italian immigrants and first-generation Italian-Americans. Many of them come from Sicily, and some families are originally from a town near Palermo that has become famous for its celebrations in honor of St. Joseph.
“It’s a tradition from Borgetto, Sicily,” said Lisa Georgakopoulos, a St. Mel parishioner whose parents came to America from Borgetto. “There are a lot of [other] towns that do this too. It’s a devotion to St. Joseph. If you have someone sick in the family, you pray to St. Joseph: ‘If everything is OK, I will do this altar for you.’”
In Sicily, many families make altars to St. Joseph. At St. Mel, the community built the altar in the church’s undercroft in the traditional style. All the key elements were there – three tiers representing the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, a very traditional picture of St. Joseph as an old man, with the Holy Child in his arms at the top of the altar, a statue of Baby Jesus, and two angels. Large bread loaves, lemons and panettones filled the tiers.
Nowadays, the food on the altar is shared with family and friends, but originally it was collected primarily to give to the poor people in the town.
“The tradition is that you choose three children from a poor family,” said Georgakopoulos. “People donate money and the money is split evenly among the children. They also buy the food in threes – everything you could think of, from cereal to lentils, rice, pasta, sweets, Easter baskets – everything is in threes, for Mary, Jesus and Joseph.”
Like all good traditions, this one is still relevant today.
In his homily, which he preached in Italian, Bishop Chappetto said: “Tonight we want to stress the importance of St. Joseph in the life of the Church and in the plan of salvation, and how St. Joseph relates to us today in our world. He is a very important figure in the life of the Church, and he can relate to families, especially families that are struggling, he is a very good provider for the Holy Family and we want to provide for our families as well.”
The celebration of St. Joseph at St. Mel’s has become popular among the Italian-Americans in the Diocese of Brooklyn and beyond. Vita Scaturr, a parishioner from St. Elizabeth Church in Melville, L.I., came to the celebration at St. Mel’s. She came to America from Borgetto in 1973.
Make Promises, Ask for Graces
“I grew up with the tradition because I’m Sicilian,” Scaturr said. “It’s good to see here in the United States that the tradition continues with our families and our children. You have people that celebrate here at the same time they celebrate [St. Joseph] in our town.
“In our town it’s a big tradition because people make promises to St. Joseph, they ask for graces.”
At the end of the Mass, Bishop Chappetto blessed the bread baskets by the statue of St. Joseph. The second part of the celebration then took place around the St. Joseph’s altar in Father O’Malley Hall.
The conversation was animated and mostly in Italian, and the pastries were delicious. The whole celebration had the feeling of a big family reunion. At the end, participants took home bags with loaves of bread that the bishop had blessed at the end of Mass.
For Bishop Chappetto, this was one of the highlights of a very busy week.
“This is one of three Masses in honor of St. Joseph that I’m celebrating. I celebrated Mass at Msgr. McClancy High School yesterday in Italian to honor St. Joseph; tonight here at St. Mel’s, and then on Monday night at my own parish in Flushing, St. Kevin’s parish, we have a Mass in honor of St. Joseph, a bilingual Mass,” he said.
Bishop Chappetto knew about the celebration of St. Joseph from his own childhood. “In my family we had a great devotion to St. Joseph and I am happy that tradition still continues and that I can be part of it.”
As they say in Sicily to honor St. Joseph, “Viva San Giuseppe, viva!”