Thank God for St. Joseph — but why March 19?

Feasting on St. Joseph’s day remains a strong tradition in Sicily, one which spread to the United States. People would make a “St. Joseph Table,” full of various kinds of food, with the tradition that no one could be turned away from the table.

By Fr. John Larson, MIC

One year I was giving a Lenten parish mission in Rhode Island. It happened to include the Solemnity of St. Joseph — but why does the Solemnity fall on March 19, you may wonder?

Saint Joseph’s March feast has a long history. 

The day St. Joseph died?
In the Eastern Church, probably the earliest feast of St. Joseph was a commemoration, in the fifth century, of the death of St. Joseph on July 20 by the Coptic Church. The Byzantine Church, from around the year 1000 A.D. onward, celebrated St. Joseph (along with King David) as one of the great patriarchs on the Sunday after Christmas. 

One of the earliest examples of recognition of St. Joseph in the Western Liturgy appears on a calendar from the 9th century of the Benedictine monastery of Reichenau — an island off the coast of Germany above Switzerland. It mentions for March 19, “At Bethlehem, [the commemoration] of St. Joseph, foster father of the Lord.” The implication appears to be that this was indeed considered the day St. Joseph died, although there is debate as to how this particular day was chosen.

Papal decrees
The Latin Rite calendar did not have a feast day for St. Joseph until the 15th century, however. The great Catholic scholar Jean de Charlier de Gerson (often known as just “Gerson”) was a man known for great devotion to St. Joseph. He began asking for a feast to St. Joseph in 1413 as a “Feast of the Espousal” of Mary and Joseph. Some local churches took on the feast. Pope Sixtus IV granted that the feast would be celebrated in Rome in 1479. 

Other countries noticed, and it began to appear in the missals of other countries after 1480. In 1621, Pope Gregory XV made the feast on March 19 a holy day of obligation, which it continues to be in Spain and Lebanon, among certain other countries.

As devotion to St. Joseph grew, kings and princes placed their kingdoms and dominions under the protection of St. Joseph. France was consecrated to St. Joseph by King Louis XIV on March 19, 1661. In the 18th century, the Church started to see numerous books written about St. Joseph. This continued right into the 21st century; Fr. Donald Calloway’s Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father continues to be a great bestseller.

Feast and foods
As the feast grew over the centuries, certain countries took on particular traditions in relation to the Feast of St. Joseph. In Sicily, for instance, there developed a strong association between the feast day of St. Joseph and particular foods. There is a story that, during a famine in the Middle Ages, the Sicilians asked St. Joseph to bring rain, promising a large feast if he interceded. The rain came, and so the people celebrated. 

Feasting on St. Joseph’s Day remains a strong tradition in Sicily, one which spread to the United States. People would make a “St. Joseph Table,” full of various kinds of food, with the tradition that no one could be turned away from the table. For many years, it was a meatless celebration because all of Lent was meatless. The fava bean helped save the Sicilians from starvation, and so this food plays a large role in the feast. 

Some traditional foods I observed at my Lenten mission in Rhode Island included a particular pastry called a zeppole, a large cream puff made especially for the day at Italian bakeries, and red velvet donuts, which many people offered to me quite a bit. In fact, I heard they were being distributed among members of the state assembly. There are many Catholics and many Italians in Rhode Island. The Federal Hill area of Providence has an annual procession on the Feast of St. Joseph with a living Rosary.

In some places where there is a “Little Italy,” such as Detroit, Italian bakeries will make a particular bread called “St. Joseph’s bread.” It’s a rather dense bread that will be made into hand-braided loaves in the shape of a cross, or a staff of St. Joseph, or a crown. It shows the people are still grateful for the intercession of St. Joseph, and they make it a special time.

Saint Joseph, Most Chaste Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pray for us! 


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