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Kansas City’s oldest St. Joseph Table tradition makes its grand, cookie-filled return

Five women stand together in front of an ornate altar. Behind them is a statue of St. Joseph.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
(L-R) Gina Mandacina, Francesca Cuccia, Linda Lipari, Gloria Pizzichino and Tina Ciarlelli are five of the many volunteers who help organize St. Joseph's Day celebrations at Holy Rosary Catholic Church. Gloria and Linda took over the event from their mother, Mary Fasone, one of the women who started the tradition at the church.

The Feast of St. Joseph, on March 19, is a major celebration for Italian Catholics in Kansas City. Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Columbus Park lays claim to the city's original “St. Joseph Table," with volunteers spending weeks baking 30,000 homemade cookies.

Ahead of St. Joseph’s Day, the pews at Holy Rosary Catholic Church are already filled — but not with people.

Instead, tens of thousands of cookies and decorations pack the parish in preparation for what’s supposedly the original St. Joseph Table in Kansas City.

“It's friendship,” says 78-year-old Gloria Pizzichino, whose mother began the tradition at Holy Rosary over six decades ago. “It's all of our friendship and seeing the people that we grew up with because there's all ages that come. The young, the old — we all know each other and we get together this time of year and look forward to it.”

St. Joseph — husband of the Virgin Mary, earthly father of Jesus Christ and the patron saint of Sicilians — holds special significance for people with Italian heritage in Kansas City.

According to the Catholic Church, the original St. Joseph Table (or Altar) originated sometime in the Middle Ages, when the island of Sicily was suffering from drought and famine. After praying to St. Joseph for intercession, rains came and their crops prospered. To thank him, the community gave offerings of food — grain, fruits, vegetables, seafood and wine — and shared with the poor.

To commemorate the blessing, people prepare tables with food to honor St. Joseph every year on his Feast Day, March 19.

A three-tier table with a purple velvet table cloth is full of breads, cookies, cakes, and spagetti noodles. There are three place settings in the front.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
This year, Holy Rosary's St. Joseph Table is inside the sanctuary — a change from years past that result from COVID-19. The breads and pastries on the table are shaped to represent holy iconography, while the spaghetti noodles and breadcrumbs represent St. Joseph's carpentry workshop. The three place settings in the front are for the Holy Family.

That tradition still looms large in Columbus Park, a historic Italian American community where, in 1960, organizers say Holy Rosary was the first in the area to bring St. Joseph Table festivities outside of the home and into the church.

Smack in the middle of Lent, the St. Joseph Table has since evolved into a weekend-long fundraiser with Italian cookies sold by the boxful: thumbprints, fig cookies, ravasanie, three-colors, sesame seed and snowballs ($12 for an assortment, cash only).

And on Sunday, hundreds of congregants and neighbors will come through to partake in a feast of pasta Milanese (a classic saucethat, in accordance with Lent, is made with fresh fish) that stretches out for most of the day.

A brick church with three doors has a statue of Mary above its central door. There is a central clocktower on top.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Holy Rosary Catholic Church was founded in 1891. The church began hosting a St. Joseph Table in 1960.

Mary Fasone and Rose Guastello were two of the women who first brought the Table to Holy Rosary, a community that dates back to 1891.

At the time, Fasone’s daughters, Pizzichino and Linda Lipari, were 14 and 4 years old, respectively.

“[Fasone] and several of the ladies of the neighborhood used to have the tables in their home,” Pizzichino said. “It became so hard for people to go house to house that some of the ladies of the parish got together and decided to do it in church. So all of the ladies would bake their specialty cookie and bring it to the church.”

As Fasone and Guastello got older and retired from the Table, Pizzichino and Lipari promised they would keep the tradition going.

Although Fasone died nearly two decades ago, Guastello passed away in 2018, and the daughters moved out of Columbus Park, Pizzichino and Lipari come back to Holy Rosary every year to organize the Table in their stead.

Setting St. Joseph’s Table

A pastry shaped like a fish lays in a box.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
On a traditional St. Joseph Table, there are displays of food, flowers, cookies and candles. There will be fish, but no meat on the table, since the feast day is during Lent.

Like many religious traditions around the country, Holy Rosary’s St. Joseph Table — cookie sales and all — came to a halt suddenly in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s lockdown order came just days before the celebrations were supposed to begin.

“We lost a lot of people and friends and we were all really scared,” Lipari said. Now 68 years old, Lipari has been volunteering for decades. “I mean, we were ready to open up and we had to shut it all down that year. The table was up, we had all the cookies made. That was the very beginning of COVID, and all the churches said, ‘No, we gotta shut it down.’”

Holy Rosary skipped the St. Joseph’s Day celebrations in 2021 and offered a pared-down version last year. So this is the first year that the church is able to welcome visitors back for the full festivities – with some changes to the traditions.

The towering table, rife with symbolism, is now inside the main sanctuary instead of its historic spot in the neighboring Scalabrini Hall.

Taking up much of the church altar, the three-tier display, this year cloaked in purple fabric, represents the Holy Trinity. At the top sits a statue of St. Joseph holding baby Jesus. Breadcrumbs and pasta on the table represent the sawdust on the floor of St. Joseph’s carpentry workshop.

Boxes filled with cookies have a label that reads Holy Rosary Church and show a picture of St. Joseph with baby Jesus
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
The volunteers at Holy Rosary prepare tens of thousands of cookies to be sold for St. Joseph's Day. The Italian cookies are part of a fundraiser to help those in need.

Fava beans are placed on the altar for good luck, and the table is filled with cookies and bread shaped to represent religious iconography like the cross, the Holy Family.

Gina Mandacina grew up coming to the Table with her mom and helping whenever she could.

“I idolized these ladies,” Mandacina said. “I thought they were the end all, be all. When I did things at home, I tried to make everything look like the St. Joseph Table. Whatever I did, I would want it to look like something that I saw on the table.”

Now Mandacina helps to make sure everything is arranged just right. She bakes sugar cookies in the shape of a cross, which Pizzichino decorates with icing flowers before placing them on the table – which is adorned with real flowers as well.

Though the arrangement changes every year, it always contains palm fronds and lilies, representing purity and the Easter season. The display is thanks in large part to Francesca Cuccia, who got involved with Holy Rosary’s celebration more than a decade ago.

“Gloria tells me what color scheme we're going with, and then we just kind of run with it,” Cuccia said. “Everything is last minute, obviously, because the fresh flowers have to stay fresh. (I love) the camaraderie of putting it all together and then being here that day and seeing how nice everything comes together.”

‘Change sometimes is good’

Beneath a painting of an older St. Joseph holding baby Jesus, a stainless steel table is filled with individual packs of breadcrumbs. Next to the breadcrumbs are a few pints of red sauce and packages of spaghetti noodles. A woman in blue stands next to the table, putting all three ingredients in a package.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Beneath a painting of St. Joseph and baby Jesus, Antoinette Quarrato prepares to-go kits of Holy Rosary's pasta Milanese dinner. This is the first time in three years that the church is able to hold its communal dinner celebrating St. Joseph's Day. But the to-go kits, a remnant of COVID-19, were so popular the church continues to sell them.

Although Holy Rosary’s event only lasts about three days, it takes about six weeks and more than 50 volunteers to put it all together.

By the time the sale starts, the women will have baked more than 30,000 individual cookies. Some bring the same Italian recipes year after year, earning them a well-deserved fame.

“About three days a week you just come and sit down and start talking and rolling cookies,” says 80-year-old volunteer Antoinette Quarrato. “If somebody sees you're doing something it’s ‘No, do it this way,’ and they'll tell you what to do. After you've done that for a while, you'll probably get familiar and you may go into the kitchen the next year or wherever you're needed. When we walk in that day, whatever needs to be done, we do.”

Quarrato, who’s Mandacina’s mother, has been surrounded by the tradition since she was a girl — like many of the organizers, Quarrato attended the old school that Holy Rosary long operated next door (it closed in 1991).

Lately, Quarrato has been packing to-go kits of pasta Milanese, which debuted in 2022 when Holy Rosary couldn’t offer their traditional sit-down meal but still wanted to provide a Sunday feast. The to-go kits were so popular that the church decided to keep selling them alongside the cookies.

Colorful cookies shaped like a cross, a heart and grapes sit on top of boxes.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Muscardini cookies, with their colorful dough shaped into crosses and hearts, are filled with fig and ready to be placed on the table.

76-year-old Tina Ciarlelli is a second-generation volunteer, after growing up helping her mom, Rosalie George, prepare the famed Milanese sauce.

“We all grew up here, went to school here, got married here, baptized, everything here,” Ciarlelli said. “This was it. This is where we lived. So even though we moved out, we continued to be a part of Holy Rosary. Once you come down, you don't leave. If you have a talent, you're stuck.”

George is about to turn 97, and while she still helps with the Table and cookie making, the task of cooking the Sunday sauce has been passed down to Cuccia’s father, Johnny Caracci. Many in the neighborhood say that sauce recipe is a closely-guarded secret, but Ciarlelli says there’s nothing mysterious — just different ways to prepare it.

“They're all the same ingredients, but everybody does it differently,” Ciarlelli said. “It's all good is the bottom line. It's all delicious. Change sometimes is good.”

Metal rack shelves hold upwards of a thousand boxes of assorted cookies.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
More than 50 volunteers spend six weeks baking the famed Italian cookies for Holy Rosary's St. Joseph's Day celebrations. By the time the sale commences, they will have made more than 30,000 cookies.

After weeks of preparation, the finished St. Joseph Table will be blessed during 4 p.m. mass on Saturday, March 18. It will be on display from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sunday, March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, at Holy Rosary Catholic Church (911 E. Missouri Avenue).

Cookie sales are already underway inside Scalabrini Hall (enter from the alley behind the church) and will conclude Sunday at 3 p.m. The traditional pasta dinner, which comes with cannolis and cookies, will be served again for the first time in three years inside Scalabrini Hall on Sunday, from 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.

All of the money made from the festivities goes to the local Catholic diocese, which will distribute it to those in need.

“I love the finished product, I'm always in awe of the table,” Mandacina said. “Everybody coming and getting together, eating together – the whole tradition is beautiful. The good thing about it all is everything goes to the poor. So everybody can be happy and get together and we're helping other people at the same time.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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