By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
Catholic Christians are displaying their faith in public – and getting some positive responses.
They are reaching people’s eyes and ears outside church doors – through manger scenes and Christmas carols.
“I’ve had people stop at the rectory and ask to take photos,” says Father Michael N. Lavallee, pastor of St. Ann Parish in North Oxford. His parish has a large manger scene on the church lawn on Main Street. “They say it’s beautiful and they love it. I’ve been struck by the interest people have.”
That’s what it’s about, he says; “it’s bringing people to look at Jesus.” So the manger scene is a tool of evangelization and a witness to the true meaning of the season.
It’s about something else too – community.
“Every year the Knights of Columbus, the Oxford Council, puts it out,” Father Lavallee says. “It’s a community event. It creates what it symbolizes. All the figures together around Jesus – that’s what Church is.”
“We have to show the world our love for Jesus,” especially given the way the world is going today, says Fanny Escobar, who came from Colombia decades ago and has been active at St. Paul Cathedral Parish, which displays an outdoor manger scene on High Street. “For the Spanish countries, the manger is the center of Christmas,” she says.
She says that in Central and South America, people set up “little towns,” usually indoors, depicting the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, etc. They move the figures of the people from one site to the next to show the progression of the story as Christmas approaches.
In late Advent, with Christmas approaching, the outdoor manger scene on the rectory lawn at St. Bernadette Parish in Northborough goes up, according to Father Ronald G. Falco, pastor.
“We want to celebrate the season of Advent,” he explains.
The manger scene faces Route 20 – Main Street – is lit up in the evening and early morning, and can be seen from vehicles traveling both directions, he says.
“As I say to our children in school, the manger scene is like a story that you don’t need words for,” he continues. “It’s a proclamation of our faith that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, the Savior of all people for all time. It’s evangelization.”
He says he preaches about such themes: the Incarnation, salvation, the proclamation of good news for all people, the fact that Jesus is the light in the darkness and his love conquers all, which is especially important with all that’s going on in the world.
Church property on Maple Street, a busy road in Spencer, is where Kenneth Choquette, custodian at Mary, Queen of the Rosary Parish, erects the church’s manger scene.
“We get a lot of compliments from the community,” he says. “You drive around – there’s no other creches. … I think most of the businesses are trying to be politically correct. They don’t have one on their property.”
He says he and some teenage workers at the church set up the stable and animals between the first and second week of Advent. Baby Jesus doesn’t appear until just before Christmas, but Mary and Joseph come between the third and fourth week of Advent. He adds the Wise Men then too, “even though they haven’t come yet” (according to the Biblical account).
“It’s a public display, so we try to tell the story of Christmas,” he explains.
He says the creche used to be set up at a 90-degree angle to the church sign, which this year wished passersby a “Merry Christmas” and wished Jesus a “Happy Birthday” to “remind people of what Christmas is all about.”
“I decided to turn it this year,” Mr. Choquette says of the creche. “A lot of people like it because you can see it, coming up the hill. It doesn’t do any good if you can’t see it. Isn’t that the purpose?”
And it isn’t just seeing that a Catholic selectman in Leicester is interested in. It’s singing and listening to Christmas carols. He’s not worrying about political correctness, though he used political overtones for a town celebration.
Selectman Harry Brooks, a member of St. Joseph-St. Pius X Parish, says that in recent years town tree lightings consisted of automatically switching on the lights. Five or six women told him a better celebration was needed this year.
“I called it, ‘Let’s make Christmas great again,’” though not to be for or against any particular political figure, he says.
For the celebration, Leicester High School students, including a Muslim girl, sang Christmas carols (Christian ones too), he says. Santa Claus came on a firetruck, Mrs. Claus read “The Night Before Christmas,” and hot chocolate and cookies were available. Selectman Brooks says about 150 people came to the Town Common for the celebration. Afterwards, the Christian Community Choir was performing its cantata Christmas concert at Leicester First Congregational Church.
No one objected to the town celebration, he says. In fact, they’re already planning monthly meetings for an even better version next year. And he’s thinking about including a creche.
There’s been a creche on St. Pius’ lawn for years, he says, but this year it seemed like people noticed it more and commented on how nice it looks. He thinks that’s because the cutting of trees increased its visibility.
Visibility is a hallmark of two creches inside St. Vincent Hospital. Though it’s a Catholic hospital, people of all faiths pass through its atrium. There, large Nativity figures are mounted high on the rocks. And a smaller manger scene in the chapel has been drawing visitors close.
“Displays are being chased out of public areas,” notes Msgr. Peter R. Beaulieu, director of mission integration and pastoral care. But St. Vincent is like the Church in the marketplace.
He says he thinks the creche in the atrium is more public, and testifies to the hospital’s mission.
In a chapel like theirs, people can interact with religious objects more easily than they do in a church, where they hesitate to enter the sanctuary, Msgr. Beaulieu says.
Everybody praises the chapel’s creche, says Father Miguel A. Pagán, a chaplain at St. Vincent’s, who calls it the most beautiful display he’s seen in the diocese. He says Msgr. Beaulieu put it together, and people come to see and photograph it.
That’s evangelization and catechesis, he says; “the symbol of faith enters through your eyes,” and proceeds to the mind and heart.
Check Photo Gallery for more pictures of area manger scenes.
Priests share devotion to manger scenes
By Tanya Connor
The Catholic Free Press
The priests at Our Lady of the Lake in Leominster have been sharing their manger scene devotion with their parish.
“This year with Father Carlos’ new stable … people are just loving it,” said Father Dennis J. O’Brien, pastor.
Father Carlos A. Ruiz, associate pastor, said he used to make stables for manger scenes in his native Colombia. People liked them, and gave him money for them.
“So when I came here I said, ‘I would like to build something beautiful for the manger scene,’” Father Ruiz said. It’s a gift from him to the parish, and he’d like to add to it next year.
“I love the season of Christmas,” he said. In Colombia he used to set up a village around the manger scene at his house and church. He said he wanted to share this part of his life with his parishioners here.
“My neighbors came to pray with us” in front of the manger scene back home, he said, speaking of the traditional Novena to the Baby Jesus. He said it begins nine days before Christmas and is geared to children.
Father Ruiz’s stable graces the manger scene in Our Lady of the Lake Church, Father O’Brien said.
Father O’Brien’s Fontanini set, with at least 150 figures to date, is displayed in the parish hall.
He started collecting this set in 1995 when he was associate pastor of St. Leo Parish in Leominster, where he kept it in his room, he said. But when he moved to St. Mary Parish in Shrewsbury, he involved kindergarteners in setting it up, using it as a teaching tool. He’s still using it that way. Now he invites third-graders at Our Lady of the Lake to bring bags of stones with which to make stone walls.
“It’s sort of like a retreat morning for them,” he said. “We talk about the Christmas story. They put all the figures where they want them.”
Father O’Brien said he bought some of the pieces at C.E. Buckley Inc. in Leominster, and was persuaded to register there. That way people seeking a gift for him could get figures he didn’t already have. However, some duplicates are in order.
“You never can have enough sheep,” he said, recalling the Scripture verse that says the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock” (that is, many sheep) when the angel told them of Jesus’ birth.
When Buckley’s was closing, Father O’Brien said, he was invited to come first to pick out figures he wanted. He also bought pieces at other places, including Boucher’s Good Books in Worcester.
In a way, Father O’Brien is also responsible for the manger scene outside Our Lady of the Lake Church. He got it when he was pastor of St. Theresa, The Little Flower Parish in Harvard and St. Francis Xavier Parish in Bolton. (The parishes are now merged into Holy Trinity Parish.)
Stephen Sonia, music director and chairman of the liturgy committee there, said St. Francis had an outdoor nativity set, but St. Theresa’s didn’t. He learned a former co-worker’s cousin had one the Harvard parish could have for free. He went with her and her husband to pick it up in Lowell.
Picking it up was heavy labor – literally.
“Each figure must have weighed 100 pounds,” Mr. Sonia said. At least 50 or 75 pounds. Made of solid cement, they weighed his car down.
“They were the most garish colors I ever saw,” reminiscent of Mardi Gras, he recalled. A St. Francis parishioner repainted them.
Each year the custodian, Henry Plump, and his son, Michael, lugged the figures up two flights of stairs to display them outside, Mr. Sonia said.
He said he later found a beautiful, hollow set for sale and showed Holy Trinity’s present pastor, Father Terence T. Kilcoyne. They bought it and gave Father O’Brien the old set for his new parish, Our Lady of the Lake.
Now, Mr. Sonia said, the custodian thanks him every Advent and Epiphany, when putting the new set up and taking it down!
In the old set, one of the three kings is missing, Father O’Brien said, adding that he saw a king like the others on the side of the road on Cape Cod. When he returned more recently, it was still there. Next time he goes he’ll inquire about buying it, he said.
In addition to these three nativity sets on church property, Father O’Brien displays one in the rectory. He said his uncle, Johnny O’Brien, of St. Patrick Parish in Whitinsville, gave him these figures.
So Father O’Brien likes manger scenes?
“I do, I do!” he exclaimed. “I have a great devotion to St. Francis.” He said St. Francis put together the first living nativity as a means of evangelization.
His own devotion started when he was a child at St. Patrick’s in Whitinsville, where a beautiful manger scene was displayed, he said. He would pray, kneeling on a kneeler that put him at eye level with the figures.
“I just remember going there and finding such peace,” he said. It was “just inviting you into the story.”
That’s why he set up the manger scene in Our Lady of the Lake Church as he did, on a platform, he said. People can pray there and children can stand on the kneeler to get closer to the scene.