New Orleans Tradition Fosters Community Spirit

November 18, 1999

Nick Marinello

Jake Calamusa missed his chance at being one of the 12 apostles. Still, he has turned out to be a fairly well-known figure. To many staff, faculty and students, Calamusa is the friendly face and voice of University College. As the information coordinator, he has efficiently and amiably operated the college's front desk for 18 years.

As a good son of Sicily, however, Calamusa also has taken up the task of temporarily transforming that same space into a St. Joseph's Day altar. It's a tradition that Calamusa shares with New Orleanians of Sicilian ancestry and one that he believes helps foster a sense of community on campus.

"My whole reasoning behind this is to build community spirit," said Calamusa, who, with the help of his mother and almost 30 coworkers, staged the altar in the reception area of University College on March 19-the Catholic feast day of St. Joseph.

It is the second consecutive year that Calamusa, the staff of University College and friends from other departments have cooked for and decorated the elaborate altar that featured a tasty display of casseroles, salads, pastas, breads, cakes and pastries. Food was also donated by Haydel's bakery (where Calumusa's mother is employed) and by Marriott food services.

According to Calamusa, the altar, which was blessed by a priest in the morning and then opened for a public feeding at noon, attracted more visitors this year than last. "People want to do things together. The altar gives them a chance to do that," said Calamusa. Along with the food, the altar was adorned with the flag of Italy, candles, a statue of St. Joseph and, according to tradition, a wish basket.

"You write down your wishes to St. Joseph on pieces of paper that are later burned," explained Calamusa. "Thats how your wishes come true. Those who would like a little more insurance on their wishes brought home a blessed lucky bean. It's these traditions, which within the Unites States are unique to New Orleans, that give St. Joseph altars particular resonance." "I grew up with the altars," said Calamusa. "It was the tradition to have the little children in the family act out the part of the 12 apostles who are supposed to taste everything. I was such a little pill I wouldn't eat anything so I couldn't be an apostle. I don't believe I couldn't eat a stuffed artichoke!"

According to legend, St. Joseph is honored because it was he who centuries ago answered the prayers of drought-stricken Sicilian farmers with the gift of rain, delivering the country from famine. Many altars also are offered by the faithful in exchange for their own answered prayers.

"My grandmother," recalled Calamusa, "promised St. Joseph that she would make an altar to him if my father came back from World War II." Calamusa also said "my old Italian aunts would work on altars down in the French Quarter for years, spending many a night during January and February baking cookies and other treats. I can remember seeing my aunts in the kitchen laughing and carrying on while making those cookies and cakes," he says. "It's a tradition I hate to see die."

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