Italian eyes are smiling at St. Ambrose

Rebecca Venegoni Tower

For many, mid-March is a celebration of St. Patrick's Day and all things Irish. On the Hill, the community rallies around St. Joseph and all things Italian.

The feast of St. Joseph, spouse of Mary and foster father of Jesus, is observed March 19 and is a major event in the predominately Italian Hill neighborhood in South St. Louis. On Sunday, March 20, St. Ambrose Parish will hold its 39th annual La Tavola di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph Altar, in the cafeteria of St. Ambrose School at 5130 Wilson Ave.

The project involves many hands, skills, time and love for the community, the Church, each other and, of course, for St. Joseph. As Rosemary Parentin, past co-chair and one of the main organizers of the altar, explained, "Once a person has been involved with the St. Joseph Altar, the devotion lasts a lifetime."

The St. Joseph Altar is a fundraiser for families of St. Ambrose School. Money is raised from the sale of baked goods and other items made by volunteers and a luncheon catered by several local restaurants. There is no set charge for the lunch, but diners are asked for a donation. All proceeds from sales and donations go to assist families who need help paying tuition at the parish school.

"This is helping our children in our school stay in our school," said Msgr. Vincent Bommarito, pastor of St. Ambrose. "It's just quietly applied to tuition payments for certain families who need some help."

St. Ambrose School has its own St. Joseph Altar celebration on a school day prior to the parish event.

Msgr. Bommarito, whose 92-year-old mother, Fannie Bommarito, volunteers for the St. Joseph Altar project, said there were two things he would like to emphasize.

"First, honoring St. Joseph with the tradition of the table, with the specialties placed on the table, and holding up St. Joseph as universal patron of the Church. It's really important to keep up these traditions we have. And second, this is the parish coming together for a spiritual event. Just the cooking -- the ladies cook for days. It's camaraderie. And then the parish coming together and getting to know one another, celebrating as Catholics together. There is specialness in that," the pastor said.

The St. Joseph Altar also includes honored guests, who are seated at the head table and served lunch. The honorees for this year are the Bianchi and Garavaglia families, chosen for their tireless efforts working for the parish and neighborhood in the Sick and Elderly Program, for their work organizing the parish flea market.

Rich history

The tradition of the St. Joseph Altar or Table dates back several centuries to Sicily during a severe famine. The people prayed through St. Joseph for help, and soon the grains grew again, and the famine ended. In gratitude, the people set up altars to St. Joseph and filled them with food, mostly bread and other grain products. The altars usually feature all types of bread products, often shaped as crowns, staff or wreathes.

The custom carried over to the Hill neighborhood, where some of the early Sicilian settlers held the altars in their homes. Almost 40 years ago, as the home altar custom showed signs of dying out, Msgr. Salvatore Polizzi, then associate pastor of St. Ambrose and currently pastor of St. Roch Parish, started the St. Joseph Altar as a parish project to be held annually near the feast day of St Joseph. In 1973 he chose two co-chairs, Carm DiFranco Dombek, representing people of Sicilian or Southern Italian heritage, and Joann Gambaro Arpiani, representing people of Northern or Lombard descent, to put together the first altar. This year's co-chairs are Loretta Vitale April (Sicilian) and Carol Savio (Northern Italian).

Parentin, the former co-chair, and a number of other volunteer bakers recently gathered at the home of St. Ambrose parishioner Sandra Nicolazzi to bake cuccidati, or fig cookies, for the St. Joseph Altar. No small-time operation, the kitchen was given the OK by St. Louis City health inspectors the week before the bake session, and everyone involved in the baking was monitored for proper food handling practices. Of course, a group of Italians, bowls of dough and filling and a hot oven quickly became a party, as many cuccidati were turned out along with some feasting and conversation.

Making the fig cookies was labor intensive and done assembly-line style. Parentin made the fig filling for the cookies, and Nicolazzi hand-mixed the flour, water and other ingredients to form the dough. Carol Savio and Marianne Peri Sack rolled the dough, cut it into strips and spooned on the fig filling. Fannie Bommarito (mother of Msgr. Bommarito) and Johanna Grimoldi rolled the dough and filling into strips, cut and shaped the strips into the cuccidati cookies. Nicolazzi, Lucy Dreon, Esther Bowers and Mary Balmer shared oven duty and cuccidati decoration.

Around noon, all stopped for a prayer and lunch.

"This is all for the love of St. Joseph," Savio said.


St. Joseph Altar

The schedule for events on Sunday, March 20

• 7 a.m. Mass at St. Ambrose Church, 5130 Wilson Ave. on the Hill. After Mass, Msgr. Vincent Bommarito will go to the school cafeteria to bless the side altar and all items, including bread, cookies and vegetables, will be sold from that altar only.

• Noon After the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Ambrose Church, Msgr. Bommarito will lead the honored guests into the cafeteria, a prayer will follow and lunch will be served. Many local restaurants donate food to provide the lunch buffet, which is open to everyone. A donation is requested, but there is no set amount charged. The St. Joseph Altar Committee requests that people give “according to the size of their hearts and their plates.”

• 3 p.m. Mass in Italian in the cafeteria, celebrated by Msgr. Sal Polizzi. After Mass, singers from St. Elizabeth Academy will entertain. The main altar will be blessed, and all items will be available for purchase. These items include cuccidati, cookies, fancy breads, cakes, fried and fresh vegetables, and many other homemade delicacies. For more information, call Loretta April at (314) 644-4876 or Carol Savio at (314) 781-8158.

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