Dear St. Joseph, kind and loving, Stretch to us a helping hand; Guide us through life's toils and sorrows, Safely to the distant land. -Traditional Hymn to Saint Joseph
For my readers that are more familiar with denominations of Spiritualism such as the National Association of Spiritualist Churches, the veneration of Saints may seem to be a new introduction into American Spiritualism. While these Churches might make use of some Christian practices (a bible verse here or there, or singing ‘Amazing Grace’), most of the few Christian practices done in these Spiritualist Churches are Protestant in origin, and are very seldom Catholic.
The veneration of Catholic Saints in American Spiritualist Churches actually began extremely early in the Spiritualist movement. As the movement rapidly spread throughout America it reached areas that were largely Catholic in religious affiliation particularly Francophone areas of the county such as Louisiana, especially in New Orleans.
In early records of Spiritualist societies we see many instances of automatic writings where Catholic saints (and also biblical figures) would be channeled by mediums as spirit guides to give their wisdom and guidance to those in need. Saint Vincent De Paul, for instance, was a favorite Spirit Guide among creole Spiritualist societies in New Orleans. (Check out the book A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans by Emily Suzanne Clark)
The Spiritualist veneration of Saint Joseph in the United States largely goes back to New Orleans in the 1900s, where the mass immigration of Sicilians brought their passionate love and veneration for their patron, Saint Joseph. Saint Joseph has been especially loved by Sicilians since the middle ages, where legend says during a terrible drought his intercession was sought to bring rain, thus saving the island from famine.
The Sicilians, grateful to their beloved saint, promised that they would hold a feast every year in his honor. In the 1900s-1930s there was a mass immigration of Sicilians to the United States, and many entered the port of New Orleans, bringing their spiritual traditions to the city. Today, this feast is still practiced around the United States by Sicilian communities, and in New Orleans the St. Joseph’s Day parade is second only to Mardi Gras.
His popularity as a Saint in New Orleans soon spread among Catholics, both Italian and African-American. Devotion to him eventually spread into the New Orleans Spiritualist Churches, an African-American Spiritualist denomination. In the 1900s, Sicilians were not considered to be white by the vast majority of Americans, and were even looked down upon by other Italians as being non-Italian. Many Sicilians prefered to join these Spiritualist denominations, as opposed to the Catholic churches where they largely felt ostracised; they were already familiar with spiritualist phenomena, coming from a spiritual background filled with wonder-working Saints, ecstatic visions, and communication with spirits of the dead, and were largely welcomed by African-American Spiritualists.
The famous Mother Leafy Anderson of the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Church of New Orleans had at least two Italian women among her disciples who started their own Churches, and the great Mother Catherine Seals of the Temple of Innocent Blood counted many Sicilians and Italians among her followers, including the miraculous healing of a young Italian girl:
“I was also told about a little Italian girl who was unable to walk and Mother Catherine cured her. Her parents brought her to the shrine and Mother Catherine kept telling the child to walk and she left her place and walked to Mother Catherine.” -The Spiritual Churches of New Orleans by Claude F. Jacobs, Andrew J. Kaslow
This unique blend of traditions brought St. Joseph, and all his traditions to the New Orleans Spiritualist Churches, and by extension many of the Churches that were branches from them.
Saint Joseph Feasts
The practice of holding a feast to Saint Joseph entered almost immediately into the New Orleans Spiritualist Churches. After a service would follow a huge feast where people would cook all sorts of food in honor of St. Joseph. People could take this opportunity to ask St. Joseph for favors, or to fulfill a promise they made to him in exchange for a favor granted. Blessed bread baked into amazingly beautiful shapes, and candied fruit is often handed out, believed to have lucky properties. His main is feast day is on March 19th, and a second day dedicated to him as “St. Joseph the Worker” is on the 1st of May.
Saint Joseph as Patron Saint of a Good Death
In Catholic devotional traditions Saint Joseph is actually the patron saint of a ‘good death’ that is, he is believed to have died peacefully, without pain, suffering, or sin, surrounded by angels, in the arms of Jesus and Mary and passed on directly to heaven. He is regularly prayed too when someone is transitioning into Spirit in order to gently aid their soul into their next phase of being.
“Hail, St. Joseph, spouse of Mary, Blessed above all saints on high, When the death-shades round us gather, Teach, oh, teach us how to die.” -Hymn to Saint Joseph
Saint Joseph as a Spirit Guide
In both Spiritualism as well as Folk Catholicism, to have clairvoyant experiences or mediumistic dreams involving Spirit Guides, Saints, or Angels is fairly normal. Many devotees of St. Joseph (or any Saint) will often have such personal experiences. St. Joseph himself is largely associated with having prophetic dreams, and is often prayed to for developing the ability to dream. In several Spiritualist traditions St. Joseph will often come through in mediumship to offer advice, wisdom, compassion, or healing to whatever soul is in need.
“The angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” Gospel of Matthew 1:20
Saint Joseph the Worker, and Real Estate Agent
Saint Joseph is probably one of the most “down to earth” Saints imaginable. He is always seen as a laborer, a carpenter in particular and has a particularly intense love for the poor working class. Due to his association with being a carpenter, and the biblical references to him having to find shelter for Jesus and Mary, he is considered the perfect Saint to ask for in finding a new home, and selling a home.
“The angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt” Gospel of Matthew 2:13
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem Gospel of Luke 2:4
See all the moving?
An interesting tradition that has caused the creation of several kits, where you can buy a tiny statue of Saint Joseph that is buried in the yard or a house or property in order to ensure it is sold in a timely and prosperous fashion.
Devotion to St. Joseph:
A simple yet wonderful devotion to St. Joseph is praying a set of Psalms associated with him as recommended by the fantastic prayer book The Raccolata. The Psalms are: 99 , 46 , 128 , 80 , 86 . The Psalms in brackets are the numbering according to Protestant bibles (King James Version, etc) otherwise the numbering of these Psalms are according to Catholic bibles. I also chose to select them from the Douay Bible because the Psalm translations are closer to the Latin Psalms given in The Raccolata:
Psalm 99: Sing joyfully to God, all the earth: serve ye the Lord with gladness. Come in before his presence with exceeding great joy. Know ye that the Lord he is God: he made us, and not we ourselves. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Go ye into his gates with praise, into his courts with hymns: and give glory to him. Praise ye his name:for the Lord is sweet, his mercy endureth for ever, and his truth to generation and generation.
Psalm 46: O clap your hands, all ye nations: shout unto God with the voice of Joy, For the Lord is high, terrible: a great king over all the earth. He hath subdued the people under us; and the nations under our feet. He hath chosen for us his inheritance the beauty of Jacob which he hath loved. God is ascended with jubilee, and the Lord with the sound of trumpet. Sing praises to our God, sing ye: sing praises to our king, sing ye. For God is the king of all the earth: sing ye wisely. God shall reign over the nations: God sitteth on his holy throne. The princes of the people are gathered together, with the God of Abraham: for the strong gods of the earth are exceedingly exalted.
Psalm 128: Often have they fought against me from my youth, let Israel now say. Often have they fought against me from my youth: but they could not prevail over me. The wicked have wrought upon my back: they have lengthened their iniquity. The Lord who is just will cut the necks of sinners: let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Sion. Let them be as grass on the tops of houses: which withered before it be plucked up: Wherewith the mower filleth not his hand: nor he that gathereth sheaves his bosom. And they that have passed by have not said: The blessing of the Lord be upon you: we have blessed you in the name of the Lord.
Psalm 80 Rejoice to God our helper: sing aloud to the God of Jacob. Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel: the pleasant psaltery with the harp. Blow up the trumpet on the new moon, on the noted day of your solemnity. For it is a commandment in Israel, and a judgment to the God of Jacob. He ordained it for a testimony in Joseph, when he came out of the land of Egypt: he heard a tongue which he knew not. He removed his back from the burdens: his hands had served in baskets. Thou calledst upon me in affliction, and I delivered thee: I heard thee in the secret place of tempest: I proved thee at the waters of contradiction. Hear, O my people, and I will testify to thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken to me, there shall be no new god in thee: neither shalt thou adore a strange god. For I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it. But my people heard not my voice: and Israel hearkened not to me. So I let them go according to the desires of their heart: they shall walk in their own inventions. If my people had heard me: if Israel had walked in my ways: I should soon have humbled their enemies, and laid my hand on them that troubled them. The enemies of the Lord have lied to him: and their time shall be forever. And he fed them with the fat of wheat, and filled them with honey out of the rock.
Psalm 86 The foundations thereof are in the holy mountains: The Lord loveth the gates of Sion above all the tabernacles of Jacob. Glorious things are said of thee, O city of God. I will be mindful of Rahab and of Babylon knowing me. Behold the foreigners, and Tyre, and the people of the Ethiopians, these were there. Shall not Sion say: This man and that man is born in her? and the Highest himself hath founded her. The Lord shall tell in his writings of peoples and of princes, of them that have been in her.
March is national Women’s History month and also marks the anniversary of Spiritualist Movement.
Leah Fox is often written off from the history of Spiritualism as the ‘other Fox sister.’ If she isn’t completely ignored in books, she will often be accused of having been manipulative over her younger sisters.
Leah, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting figures of the Spiritualist movement, not only as one of the three fox sisters, but her important role in the shaping of the religious aspect of the Spiritualist movement. When her sisters were old enough to be on their own and were out essentially being famous, Leah lead a much quieter life, performing private seances for guests at her home in Rochester (and eventually NYC).
Leah was not the typical Victorian woman, and this may be the primary reason that she has been recorded by history in a more negative light than her sisters. While her sisters could be written off as ‘tragic young women’ Leah was a more imposing figure: an independent woman. She was married three times, she was a single mother, she provided for her own family primarily through her skills as a music teacher, and was a very popular medium in her own right.
Leah wrote her own record of the Spiritualist movement, which is still in print, though not a hugely popular read these days. The work is titled The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism by Leah Underhill (her married name). Although the work clearly states that it is not an autobiography, the work is very much written from Leah’s perspective. It discusses the events at Hydesville, as well as Leah’s own account of what occured in Rochester as a result, the events that became of it, their family history of spiritualist phenomena, and many, many interesting accounts regarding the early history of the Spiritualist movement.
An interesting point in the work that is largely left out of many works on the Fox Sisters is that Leah seemed to be keenly aware of the religious and spiritual dimension of this movement. Leah, seemed to understood that the movement was much larger and more important than a money making opportunity but rather a ‘new truth.’
She wrote: “the movement was not in our hands nor under our control. It had an object, and we, as reluctant and humble instruments, were in the hands of other and higher wills and forces, from whom it had proceeded, by whom it was directed, and, so to speak, engineered. We have since come to understand that all these events and incidents, perplexing and distressful as they were to us, were but the birthroes of a new truth, which was destined to revolutionize this world, and establish a communication between here and the hereafter; of the Earth and of the Spirit."
On a personal level, Leah described an event that she experienced at one of the first seances in her home in Rochester in the terms of a spiritual conversion:
“We were truly converted, and as the dear old Methodists used to say, “born again.” We could then realize that we had something to live for, something to hope for, in that sacred hour when each one in our humble group “lay at the feet of Jesus,” willing to be guided and directed in the paths of truth and duty.
Leah, unlike her two younger sisters, never denied the truth of Spiritualism. She continued as a medium (though in mainly private seances) her entire life, and also raised her children with Spiritualist beliefs.
Leah’s presence as a medium in Rochester lead to the forming of some of the earliest Spiritualist Circles in the country, one of the first being her own, which included her friends Amy and Isaac Post (I wrote a blog about them, check it out!). Isaac’s famous book of automatic writing actually includes a section in the back that records communications delivered through Leah in Seances. These early seances eventually lead to the formation of Spiritualist societies and Churches that we have today, and for those of us who live in Rochester, Plymouth Spiritualist Church can directly trace itself to this early Spiritualist Circle, that had Leah as it’s Medium.
I’d suggest to anyone reading this that’s interested, to take the time to read Leah’s own work in her own words, rather than the words of others.