A First Altar to Honor St. Joseph
March 21, 2024

ROCKFORD—It’s a great idea that just keeps spreading: St. Joseph altars.

Parishes and schools and individuals across the diocese have adopted and sometimes adapted the long-time Italian tradition to honor St. Joseph after he saved residents of Sicily from famine some centuries ago.

Holy Family Parish held its first St. Joseph Altar this year the weekend of March 16-17, assisted by longtime altar maker, Carl Ambruoso.

“It’s in my heart,” Ambruoso said as he worked Thursday with a variety of people including Kathy Walls, a member of the parish staff who was Ambruoso’s “right arm” in choreographing the project. Rick Coenen, a retired engineer and member of the St. Joseph and Sons ministry, designed a simple-yet-brilliant altar structure that sets up quickly and will come apart and store in a small space. Coenen looked at Ambruoso’s sketches, looked online for ideas and bought a book to inspire his design. He used wood that he happened to have at home along with plastic bins to set up the three-tier altar in front of a backdrop made mostly by Ambruoso.

St. Joseph altars generally serve meatless, fish-based sauce and pasta, but Ambruoso suggested that Holy Family just serve desserts this inaugural year. The altar also included the traditional “saints table,” but did not seat anyone — usually children who enact Jesus, Mary and Joseph. “Baby steps,” is how Ambruoso
described his recommendation.

However, the finished altar looked like the parish had been creating them for years. Programs about St. Joseph, prayer cards, St. Joseph medals, and fava beans were present along with a variety of sweet treats, fruits and vegetables and one whole fish. Ambruoso contributed a variety of “extras” such as angel statues, pillars to vary the horizontal display and some spera pastry designed into special shapes including that of a monstrance.

He also brought the large statue of St. Joseph, describing its origin as at the first St. Anthony Hospital many miles closer to downtown than the current medical center. As the hospital was closing, Ambruoso’s father called and told him to clean the house for some special guests who were coming over. The St. Joseph statue and two others were those guests.

Ambruoso has featured the statue before at altars he’s built in his home.

At Holy Family, breadcrumbs to symbolize the sawdust in St. Joseph’s workshop, a pignolati mound (pastry kernels molded with carmelized honey and sugar into a pyramid to represent the pinecones Jesus played with as a child), and other special touches, including a spotlight on the saint, were part of the display.

Baked goods were welcomed from Italian and non-Italian parishioners — including a rosary made of bread by Tonia Caruana and her mother. She also contributed gold-trimmed dishes and borrowed her grandmother’s gold-rimmed pitcher for the saints table.

Father Phillip Kaim, pastor, blessed the altar after the 4:30 p.m. Mass on March 16. He wore a special vestment featuring a portrait of St. Joseph on the back. He was one of many who look forward to continuing this tradition in honor of St. Joseph.



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