Rhode Island, the Zeppole Capital of the Universe

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

For a lot of people, the most important thing about the Feast of St. Joseph are the zeppole. Without a doubt Rhode Island is the zeppole capital of the universe. We really like our zeppole here, don’t we?

For uninitiated readers who might not be familiar with the term, a zeppola (singular) is basically a cream puff. A more detailed description is found in Wikipedia: “A zeppola is an Italian pastry consisting of a deep-fried dough ball of varying size but typically about 4 inches in diameter. This doughnut or fritter is usually topped with powdered sugar, and may be filled with custard, jelly, cannoli-style pastry cream, or a butter-and-honey mixture. The consistency ranges from light and puffy, to bread or pasta-like.”

For some reason, zeppole are connected to the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19 and, in fact, are also called “Bigne di San Giuseppe.” I don’t know their history but it doesn’t matter. Zeppole are really good. In the food family they must be related to potato chips because it’s hard to eat just one. And the fact that they always appear during the dietary deprivation of the Lenten Season makes them even better – tempting, seductive, almost sinful.

While we enjoy our Zeppole, however, I hope we won’t ignore the real star of the day – St. Joseph himself, spouse of the Virgin Mary and foster-father of Jesus.

St. Joseph, or course, is one of the central figures of the Bible, a key player in the story of our redemption. St. John Paul II wrote a beautiful pastoral letter about St. Joseph entitled “Redemptoris Custos,” or “Guardian of the Redeemer.” There he says: “The whole Christian people not only will turn to St. Joseph with greater fervor and invoke his patronage with trust, but will also keep before their eye his humble, mature way of serving and taking part in the plan of salvation.”

St. Bernadine of Siena, in a sermon found in the Office of Readings, also describes the special role of St. Joseph in salvation history, saying that in Joseph the “noble line of patriarchs and prophets is brought to fulfillment,” thus bringing the Old Testament to its fitting close. And St. Bernadine adds beautifully, that what the Old Testament offered only as a promise – the Messiah – Joseph was now able to hold in his arms.

As Pope John Paul points out in his letter, the whole Christian people has and does turn to St. Joseph with great fervor. Joseph transcends the ages and is revered in every nation and culture. He is one of the most important saints of the Church, and he assumes a number of leading roles in our daily life and devotion.

Every year, of course, St. Joseph is found in the nativity scenes of our homes and churches, proudly and quietly keeping watch over the Holy Family. Thus St. Joseph is the patron of the Universal Church, continuing to watch over God’s holy family, now from his place in heaven.

St. Joseph, as a carpenter, is the patron saint of workers, a role we honor each year on May 1st. In the liturgy that day we pray: “O God, Creator of all things, grant that by the example of St. Joseph and under his patronage, we may complete the works you set us to do and attain the rewards you promise.”

He is the patron saint of a happy death, passing into eternal life in the loving presence of Jesus and Mary. One devotional prayer says, “O blessed Joseph, you gave your last breath in the loving embrace of Jesus and Mary. When the seal of death shall close my life, come with Jesus and Mary to aid me.” Would that we all had that special grace in our final moments on earth!

And St. Joseph has even entered into popular culture as the unofficial saint of real estate deals. You’ve probably heard of the tradition – if there’s a piece of property you want to sell, you bury a statue of St. Joseph in the ground and he’ll bring the transaction to a speedy and happy conclusion. There are different theories about how to utilize St. Joseph most effectively – is he buried right-side-up, or upside-down; facing the property or otherwise; is he disinterred after the closing or left behind? Whatever, there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence that Joseph is an excellent agent.

Popular folklore aside, there are so many important lessons to be had from the example of St. Joseph. He was a man of profound personal faith and trust. His faith in the Lord predisposed him to do God’s will, even when it was difficult and mysterious. He was a man of trust, who did whatever God asked of him without possibly knowing what the final outcome might be.

Faith and trust – these are two key virtues we can learn from the example of St. Joseph, virtues that will keep us close to God, help us to do His will, and give us sure and safe direction, comfort and peace as we go about our daily lives.

So, as we honor the “Great St. Joseph,” (the title of the beautiful little hymn we sang as children), by all means enjoy the decadent zeppole. But celebrate the saint too! Say a little prayer, go to Holy Mass, or do a little act of charity or kindness in his honor.

St. Joseph, pray for us!