italian american

Happy St. Joseph’s Day

Or, Let’s Show Them How to do a Feast Day Right

When I was growing up March 19th was always a big deal.   I never understood however why it wasn’t a day off from school since it required hours of work to get ready for the food feast that was coming but my Mom took care of most of the cooking when I was younger so I just had to show up at the dinner table.

March 19th is the day Sicilians celebrate the Feast Day of St. Joseph and how better to do this than with a St. Joseph’s Table.  Because March 19th happens during lent this is a meatless feast but some of the best foods are prepared this day; baked and breaded eggplant, stuffed zucchini, egg with asparagus frittata, stuffed artichokes, fava bean soup, and bread, lots of special and sometimes sweet breads to eat with your meal.

Mostly it’s the desserts we can’t wait for.  Sfingi’s filled with custard, fravioli’s filled with honey sweetened rigotta, pignolatta’s smothered in honey, and more.  Not only did I learn to love them all I learned to make them all as well.  Pure heaven.

Pignolatta; small balls of dough fried and then smothered in honey. Yum!  © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Pignolatta; small balls of dough fried and then smothered in honey. Yum! © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

A little background perhaps is needed.  St.   Joseph was the earthly father of Jesus Christ.  His feast day, and birthday, is March 19th.  St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers; he is the universal protector of the Catholic Church and is the patron saint of Canada – China and Mexico.  March 19th is also celebrated as Father’s Day in countries such as Poland, Spain and Italy – and in some countries St. Joseph’s Day is a National Holiday.

During the Middle Ages there was a drought in Sicily and the people feared a famine would come.  They prayed to St. Joseph to intercede on their behalf and stop the famine.  They promised that if he answered their prayers, they would prepare a large feast to honor him. The rain did come, and the people of Sicily prepared a large banquet for their patron saint. The fava bean was the crop which saved the population from starvation and is a traditional part of St. Joseph’s Day. Foods are traditionally served containing bread crumbs to represent saw dust since St. Joseph was a carpenter.

Breaded and baked eggplant.  One of my favorite dishes.  © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Breaded and baked eggplant. One of my favorite dishes. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Most times our ‘table’ was the sight of no less than 50 people coming over to feast together.  Since I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY and I had a very large Italian American family base we always had a lot of people over to celebrate this day with us and it was one of those special days I always looked forward to.

The funny part was that I was told growing up that Sicilians were the only group who celebrated this day with a feast.   Now as I travel the world I have come to learn that this is not the case and many cultures and other ethnic groups celebrate this feast day as well.  For instance, here in Spain the famous Cathedral Sagrada Familia was actually first designed and created as a tribute to St. Joseph.  It evolved during Anton Gaudi’s time to become more than this but the original plans were based as a tribute to Jesus’s earthly father.

As time has gone on my parents have moved away from Buffalo and my folks go to a St. Joseph’s Table held every year at a local church in downtown Los Angeles.  The table is packed with people who come to participate in an Italian feast, some who know what day it is and others who just know that the Italian church is having an awesome dinner and they want to eat well this day.

I love to travel.  What I love more is having common ground with people.  I also love sharing my knowledge with others where I know what makes March 19th so special.  I have been able to tell our hosts here in Spain about St. Joseph’s Day in the US and they are surprised that such a tradition exists; it is something they were not aware of; that Italian Americans celebrate this day as they do. They were impressed.

Sfingi - dumplings that are usually filled with cream and dusted with powdered sugar.  © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Sfingi – dumplings that are usually filled with cream and dusted with powdered sugar. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

It’s like I’ve always said; sit different people from different cultures around a dining room table and the differences between us seem to disappear.  We really have more in common with each other than people realize.  Now if only our world leaders would sit around a dining room table and talk; maybe the world wouldn’t be filled with so much distrust and hate.  At least that’s my prayer, and hope, for the New Year on this March 19th.  That and may your tables be filled with good and plentiful food all year.

Happy St. Joseph’s Day.

Florence Lince

Side Note: St. Joseph’s Day is also the day when the swallows traditionally return to Mission San Juan Capistrano after having flown south for the winter.


Or Do You See What I See

In the early 1980s I began to hear about a little town in what was then Yugoslavia called Medjugorje.  I couldn’t pronounce the name of this town let alone spell it.  The reports coming from this little town however fascinated me and I wanted to know more.  You see I’m not only Italian American but also Roman Catholic.  As a Catholic I had grown up with stories of saints and apparitions of our Blessed Lady in both Fatima and Lourdes but these apparitions were happening during my lifetime.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I always kept the story of this town and I vowed that one day I would go there myself and see what I could see.  Years passed, as life has a way of doing and war came to Yugoslavia.  Even during those war years I often wondered how the people of this town were fairing and if our Lady had indeed prepared them for the worst.  The war ended in 1995 and seven new countries were formed; Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is where the town of Medjugorje is.

It is pronounced med-ju-gor-e, pretty much the way it is spelled.  The town rests high in a hill, 40 minutes south of the city of Mostar in the southwest region of the country.  Getting to it by bus isn’t easy and the ride from Croatia took about five hours.  Once you arrive in town at the bus station you must walk past souvenir shops selling religious medals, rosaries and statues; you will also walk past restaurants and hotels.  My husband entered one of the local restaurants to ask a few questions and as he turned to leave the waitress said, “Be sure to see the statue of Christ beyond the Church, it weeps”.  And so it began.

The complex in Medjugorje is like nothing I have seen before. There is the main church which seats 500 or more people.  There is the outdoor chapel area which seats 7,000.  There is the area for lighting candles for your special intentions; prayer altars along the path to the cemetery and if you feel the need to go to confession you can do so in about a dozen languages. They hold mass every hour of the day from 10:00 to 6:00pm and every hour the mass is in a different language.  There is the cemetery; apparition hill, and that Statue of Christ. We were told that upwards of a million people come to Medjugorje every year.  They have been coming since the apparitions began and they came even during the war.

The Church of St. James, Patron Saint of Pilgrims

The Church of St. James, Patron Saint of Pilgrims. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

I first entered the main church and found only one person inside.  It is a plain but beautiful church and the second I opened my mouth to say my first prayer I began to sob. The strong feelings overcame me so quickly I couldn’t pray for that which I had come to pray for, at least not out loud.  My husband told me that God didn’t need to hear the words; he knew what was in my heart. It was still hard not to be able to say that which I had held in for all these many years.

This church brought forth great emotion

This church brought forth great emotion. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Leaving the church we went next to the area where the Statue of Christ rises. The Statue was erected in 1989.  It is made of Bronze. And almost immediately after it was put into place people noticed the liquid running down its leg.  Walking towards the statue of Christ I again was overcome with emotion and began to cry.  There is a step stool for people to get closer to the statue to see the liquid running down his leg and if I hadn’t seen it for myself I know I would be reading this with skepticism and I asked my husband how could this be?  I had to touch the liquid for myself and as I wiped it away another tear appeared and then another and again I began to cry.  It is hard to explain the deep emotion this place brought forth from me.

The Statue of Christ was raised in 1989 and is made of Bronze

The Statue of Christ was raised in 1989 and is made of Bronze. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

We were there for 6:00pm mass this night and walking back to the church we saw buses arrive bringing more people in to attend mass.  It was a Monday night in winter; cold and dark; and there wasn’t a seat to be had inside the church, people had filled the pews and it was standing room only.  Because the church was so full there were six priests on the altar during mass and everyone was needed to give out communion.  Almost everyone in the church received the sacrament.  Normally, when a mass finishes people begin to flock out the door; this night however no one moved for a prayer service began after the mass and most of the people stayed to continue praying.  After the prayers the priest blessed any of the religious items purchased that day in the gift shops, and even after that people stayed to keep praying. We left only because we needed to catch our bus to Mostar.

During the summer months they get so many visitors they hold mass outdoors; they have seats for 7000 people

During the summer months they get so many visitors they hold mass outdoors; they have seats for 7000 people. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

My husband who is not a religious person told me that he feels that something special is happening at Medjugorje; what it is exactly we couldn’t put our finger on, its just something you feel, and see, and believe.  As for me I cannot explain the deep emotions that overcame me on this day.  I have been trying to sort that out.  I wasn’t crying out of sadness or grief, I was crying because the presence I felt was so strong that I was overcome with emotion, and hope.  I still light candles in churches I visit in other places but I feel somehow that I’ve already lit candles in a place where my prayers will be answered, even though God had to hear them from my heart.


Click this link to read more about the apparitions in Medjugorje.

Florence Lince