Home | Valente and DiRenzo Family History - Saint Joseph's Day, 19 March

Background: In the old days in Camden, New Jersey, the Feast began at mid-day with the meal for the people who took the places of the Holy Family. Giovanni Valente used to be Saint Joseph. Then, just as at Christmas and Easter, he would go to work in the afternoon, six days a week, twelve hours a day at an Italian-bread bakery.

I do not have a lot of information about St. Joseph's Day. After more than fifty years the memories of the living have faded and the dead are long dead. What follows is the little information that I myself have.

But also now Michael P. Fanelli has written to me about the St. Joseph altar and St. Joseph's table, about how the Italians came to celebrate this feast day and the role of St. Joseph in the church and in the Italian culture.

Saint Joseph's Day

(St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, 19 March)

[St. Joseph's Day in Gambatesa | The Fasting Days of Lent]

Many Italian families in Camden had (still have) a special devotion to Saint Joseph. Every year on his day (19 March) they would provide a meal for everyone who came to visit. Italian foods were prepared which everyone was to have some of [Note 1]. Families did this because of a special favor they had received from Saint Joseph.

Nunziata DiRenzo with her friend Carmela Davanti, September 1959, 6 KB

One of these families in Camden lived three doors away from Giovanni Valente and Nunziata DiRenzo on Berkley Street. To Nunziata DiRenzo's right in the photograph is her neighbor Carmela Davanti (1890-1977); Nunziata's children called her Zi'Garmel' ("Aunt Carmela"). Carmela was from the village of Riccia, near Gambatesa, in Molise [Note 2]. In their part of Italy the same family, one with a special devotion to St. Joseph, would host Saint Joseph's Day every year.

Zi'Garmel' was married to Michele Fanelli (1888-1963), who was also from Riccia; he was called Zi' Mighel' ("Uncle Michele") [Note 3]. They never had children. Zi' Mighel' was the brother of Grace Fanelli, and he also had a sister who lived in Glenside, Pennsylvania. This sister was named Giuseppina Fanelli and people called her "Pepina".

These were the three women who used to go to Zi'Garmel's house to help do all the cooking for St. Joseph's Day: they were Nunziata DiRenzo (who used to fry the cavazun'), Grace Fanelli, and Pepina Fanelli. They used to go to Zi'Garmel's house for a whole week, because there was so much cooking to do for St. Joseph's Day.

A very special treat on St. Joseph's Day were the "cavazoons" (That's the way Nunziata's children pronounced the word; the Italian word is calzoni). These were a small thin circle of Italian pastry dough, folded in half to seal in a filling of ceci ("chick pea") paste sweetened with honey, and then fried in oil until golden in color. [Note 4]

Sometimes the cavazun' were put in small brown paper bags for people as they left. Many, many of these were needed because they were very popular, and people wanted to take some home to family or friends who could not come. At the same time visitors would be told to pray to St. Joseph for his help. The feast would go on all day.

Another family in Camden that gave Saint Joseph's Day was named Romano; they lived on Clinton Street. There was another family who lived on Benson Street who did this. "So what you used to do was to go from house to house all day .... It was an all day thing, going in and out of people's houses," Vittoria Valente remembered.

There would be a devotional statue of Saint Joseph on a table. People who wanted to left an envelope with a monetary gift (a bust) on the table beneath the statue; the meal was of course very expensive to provide for so many people. Beneath the statue of Saint Joseph there were copies of a Prayer to St. Joseph. The last one I saw was described this way:

Say for nine mornings for anything you may desire. It has never been known to fail.

The devotion to Saint Joseph of the families who celebrated his Day was very serious; the food was definitely given in a religious spirit. But this was also a happy day, when you often saw people you had not seen for a long time, and the Italians used to look forward to its coming in the midst of Lent.

Note 1: Traditional foods belonging to la cucina di magro, "thin" in the sense of meatless, because it was Lent. [BACK]

Note 2: People from Gambatesa called Riccia a Ricc' -- i.e. they pronounced the name as if the final "i" and "a" were silent, but the "cc" was still pronounced like an English "ch". ("Aricia" was Riccia's name in ancient Roman times.) Gambatesans meanwhile called their own village Gambades' or Iamates', variant spelling Jamatese; the final "e" is silent, but it indicates that the "s" is pronounced like an English "z"; the "j" is pronounced like an English "y". [BACK]

Note 3: The Carmela Fanelli listed on page 27 of the booklet for the "Solemn Feast in Honor of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, patron saint of the Comune of Riccia", from 1972, may be her. Nunziata Valente is listed on page 28, and there is a Grace Iacovelli on page 29. The women used their husbands' surnames, because in America they were "Mrs." [BACK]

"Recipe for Cavazunes (St. Joseph Pants)"

This recipe is from Nunziata's younger sister Pasqualina's daughter Giuseppina's friend. The friend was the daughter of the DePasquale family who lived on Benson Street in Camden; the mother's family had prayed to St. Joseph and their prayer was answered. It was at this house that Pasqualina used to make these, not with her sister Nunziata.

There are two parts, the dough and the filling. And after these are mixed and the pastries prepared, the calzoni are deep-fried in oil.

Ingredients - Filling

Ingredients - Dough


To make the filling, begin by mashing the chick peas into a paste by hand or using a fork (A food mill or a blender could be used now). Then blend all the ingredients for the filling with the chick peas very well together.

To make the dough, mix the flour and all the dough ingredients together. The dough should be very easy to work.

Roll the dough by hand, making sure it is not thick. Cut circles of dough about 5-inches in diameter, and place 1 heaping tsp of filling in each.

Fold the circle of dough in half with its filling inside, crimping its edge with a fork.

Deep fry the pasties until they are golden brown. Drain them on paper bags.

"They used a deep pot of oil for frying, probably more than one pot at a time," Lydia Valente remembered. "I don't think they used a thermometer. They probably tested by water testing: When the oil is hot, you put your hand under water (or have a dish of water) and shake it in the oil. If it splatters, it is ready for deep frying." (A thermometer would measure 425° F.)

"These are a lot of work to make. There many women there at one time. I remember my mother and many others all working together to make these. My earliest memory of this was when I was about 6 or 7 years old."

"When I went to Gambatesa in 1995, it was St. Joseph's Day, and the woman I visited had made these pastries and they tasted exactly like my mother's." [BACK]

St. Joseph's Day in Gambatesa

Gambatesa on the map of Italy, 2 KB
"Gambatesa is a village in central southern Italy between Naples and Rome.

by Angelo Abiuso (Geneva)

St. Joseph's Day (La festa di San Giuseppe) is no longer celebrated in the old the way in Gambatesa. But when it was, cavezun' were one of the things made for St. Joseph's day. My great-grandmother used to prepare nineteen different pietanze ("dishes with food") in small amounts. People would visit each other, bringing food, and eat and eat and eat. The poorest families were given some help to prepare their pietanze (The rich families used to give them food). It was an important day.

Now only some Giuseppe friends meet each other for a pranzo ("lunch") together, but I don't know if only Giuseppes are invited to the party. But my Uncle Giuseppe told me: "We still do it in the old way", with the pietanze and people taking the parts of the Holy Family. But only a few people still do this, not everyone like before.

My grandmother told me that now in Gambatesa, San Giuseppe's Day isn't celebrated on the 19th if that day is a working day. "They have changed everything," she told me. In 2002 the feast was celebrated on the Sunday before March 19th. The Gambatesa Band played during the morning, and there was a concert in the evening with fireworks. The concert took place on the "Villa" (as it usually does except for some concerts that are occasionally given in front of the church during the summer -- classical music. By "the church" I mean the San Bartolomeo Apostolo -- the big one). La Villa ("the Park", that is, the Municipal Park) is what Largo Fontana is called in Gambatesa.

According to what I have read on your Web page, the recipe for cavezun' in Gambatesa is the same as in Camden. Robè quell'iè a rarech' -- the roots of what we are talking about are the same.

Rarech' means "roots". The expression Quell'iè a rarech' is used in Gambatesa when talking about members of the same family who behave, look, talk the same way; the Italian is Quella è la radice.

In dialect cavezun' means "trousers", but I don't know if there is a second meaning or why they called it cavezun':

  u cavezun' = singular
  i cavezun' = plural

Mindi, whose grandmother lives in the Italian community in Glenside, Pennsylvania, wrote to me that she thought this pastry was being called "gabazune". And I think she heard correctly, because it is characteristic of the dialect that "c" becomes "g", so that for example capisce becomes gabisc'. And sometimes in the dialect "v" becomes "b"; for example, the Italian macaroni cavatelli is gabadéll in dialect. [See the Dialect Spoken in Gambatesa, Molise. And "gabadales" = cavatelli.]

La festa di San Giuseppe, marito di Maria (The Feast of St. Joseph, husband of Mary), March 19th

by Michael P. Fanelli, 21 January 2007

St. Joseph is the greatest saint in the Catholic church next to his wife Mary. His main traditional feast day is March 19th to honor him as the foster father of Jesus Christ and the husband of Mary. His secondary feast day is May 1st.....St. Joseph the worker. Although March 19th is not a holy day of obligation, Catholics particularly Italian Catholics, celebrate this feast day which is preceded by a nine day novena. The feast day began in Sicily in the middle ages when there was a terrible drought. The people were beginning to die from starvation and decided to pray to St. Joseph to send rain for their crops. They made a promise that if he sent them rain they would give a feast every year to feed anyone who came, particularly the poor. St. Joseph heard their plea and miraculously the heavens opened up. The rain came which put an end to their drought and subsequently an end to their starvation. This tradition spread to other parts of Italy including Riccia Campobasso where my grandfather came from.

St. Joseph is known as the patron saint of workers, foster fathers, happy deaths, husbands, the universal church, dedicated souls, the unborn. He is also the patron saint of Canada, Peru, and social justice.

La Tavola di San Giuseppe (The table of St. Joseph)

The St. Joseph's table consists of many traditional staples. The feast is always meatless because meat was considered a luxury food. The food items on the St. Joseph table are fish usually baccalà (cod fish) and is used to symbolize penance and sacrifice. The fava bean or horse bean. This is also known as the St. Joseph bean because it grows in very little water. This is sometimes substituted by cannellini beans or lentils. Some devotees to St. Joseph carry a single dried fava bean as a remembrance of St. Joseph and his blessings upon them. Rice or rice pudding which symbolizes the humility of St. Joseph and how he used basic things to provide for the Holy Family. AgroDolce (sweet and sour sauce) which symbolizes feast and famine. Pasta with bread crumbs is served. The use of bread crumbs is symbolic of sawdust because St. Joseph is traditionally known as being a carpenter. Red wine is also served to symbolize the sacrificial outpouring of the blood of Jesus. There are also various breads, peppers filled with a bread filling, pears and orange salad. Zeppoli is a Sicilian egg pastry similar to a cream puff without the cream filling. They are much like a doughnut deep fried then rolled in sugar. Cavezunes (which means pants) are a ravioli type cookie filled with a mixture of ground chick peas, orange rind, cinnamon oil, sugar and honey then deep fried. Tradition teaches that no one left the feast empty handed and were given either a cavezune or zeppoli as they left.

The St. Joseph Altar

The St. Joseph altar is erected in three levels to symbolize the most blessed Trinity. It is adorned with a statue of St. Joseph holding the infant Jesus, candles, religious articles, pictures of the Holy Family, a crucifix, carpenter's tools, and Lily flowers which symbolize chastity and purity. Some St. Joseph altars also contain the foods for the feast. Tradition teaches that as soon as the food and the altar are prepared, a priest will come to bless them and those who prepared the meal. The feast begins at noon for those portraying Jesus, Mary and Joseph (The Holy Family) after a series of prayers. The house has to remain absolutely silent from 12:00 noon until 3:00 pm (the hours when Jesus hung on the cross). The radio and television stay off. There are no phone calls nor visitors permitted during that time. Then at 3:00 pm the guests begin to arrive and are welcome to participate in the feast. Prayer petitions to St. Joseph are to remain a secret. They are usually written anonymously then placed in a basket on the St. Joseph altar.

There was a woman from Glenside, Pennsylvania, named Lena Mignogna Fanelli who celebrated this feast day for 57 years. Her husband and my grandfather were first cousins and came from Riccia in Campobasso. Many people from the area of Glenside and Edgehill, Pennsylvania, who originated from that part of Italy celebrated this feast for many years.

As a young man my father Joseph Fanelli played the part of Jesus for many years until he got married. Lena Mignogna Fanelli and her husband also named Joseph Fanelli played the parts of Mary and St. Joseph. Any single Catholic male can play the part of Jesus, but is not permitted to do so once he's married.

Joseph and Lena Mignogna Fanelli and Sister Elisa Fanelli, 26 KB

Above: Joseph and Lena Mignogna Fanelli in Glenside with Joseph's sister Sister Elisa Fanelli. Sister Elisa is now in her 80s and lives in Italy.

Michael P. Fanelli began to carry on the St. Joseph's Day tradition four years ago and still uses the same recipes from the old country.

The Fasting Days of Lent
Notes about Food in Camden

The spaghetti with tuna in tomato sauce that was made for Christmas Eve was also made for Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent (as indeed for Fridays throughout the year). The fish was from a can and that made this an inexpensive but nourishing food. The tomato sauce was unseasoned passato di pomodoro (tomatoes passed through a food mill to remove their skins and seeds, and then canned) with a little oil added.

For fast days they also ate ai ogl' or agli e ogli, the dish that in Italian is called spaghetti all'aglio ed olio. This was spaghetti in a sauce of sliced garlic fried in olive oil with some water added. This could be what is called "an acquired taste", because the dish was very oily and the garlic flavor was very strong. But Nunziata DiRenzo really liked it.

When Nunziata was young, like many other people from Molise, she added hot pepper to the foods she cooked. She used enough to make herself ill sometimes! But because her children did not like the hot pepper, she stopped using it.

"For Easter we ate the same foods as on other days." "For Easter my mother made lamb. Once she made a duck, but we did not like it because it was too greasy. We always ate after noon, never at supper time, because my father had to go to work." But Nunziata used to make a special ricotta "pie" for Easter. In dialect it was called GAH-ZHA-DALE' (maybe transcribed: gasciadele', with accent on the last syllable, but the final "e" is silent). It was made of ricotta and had a gentle taste of lemon peel.

Note by Angelo Abiuso: in Gambatesa this pie is called caschatell or cachatélle: it looks like the letter "D" and there is ricotta inside with lemon. It looks like il calzone, the special pizza, shaped like a half-moon. "That was the way it was in Camden, too," Nunziata's daughter said.

Related Pages:

The URL of this Web page: https://www.roangelo.net/valente/stjoseph.html
Last revised: 9 June 2007 : 2007-06-09 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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