By Malie Hudson
Pope Francis beautifully captured the nativity in a single phrase in his 2019 apostolic letter, Admirabile signum – “The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.”
In the Diocese of San Bernardino, parishes are beginning to create nativity scenes throughout their churches, and some are adding an additional set that’s portable and outdoor friendly for liturgies celebrated during California’s stay-at-home orders. Other parishes located on busy streets have traditionally placed the Christmas creche in front of their church’s property during December and January, inviting everyone driving by to reflect on the profound message of the “living gospel,” that God is with us.
Though some parish nativity scenes are newer, and others are older, every Christmas creche has a unique story.
St. Peter and St. Paul, Alta Loma
When the San Gabriel Mountains receive a dusting of snow during this time of year, the view can be seen through the windows from inside St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Alta Loma. The altar is located just below the windows and off to the right sits the parish’s four-foot-tall Nativity Scene. A star is suspended at the top of the ceiling with gold ribbon rays flowing down upon the nativity.
This particular nativity scene is one-of-a-kind. According to Nan Judge, one of the parish’s last surviving original members, it actually pre-dates the founding of the parish in 1970. A priest named Father Eamonn Lyng used to celebrate Mass in his garage in a house not far from where the current church building stands. Judge and nine other parishioners gathered weekly to celebrate Mass together and decided that they needed a nativity set before their first Christmas Mass. They contacted a bishop in Italy who put them in contact with woodworkers in a little town in Italy. They mailed sketches and ideas back and forth until they decided on what they wanted. The ten parishioners put their money together and were able to have their first Christmas Mass in a garage with a beautiful hand-carved wooden nativity scene.
“What amazes me is that they had to trust these letters going back and forth,” said Vivian Imbruglia, the parish’s arts and environment coordinator for 25 years. “The fingers and hands on the statues are beautiful and we haven’t broken one finger.”
Imbruglia, with the help of her husband, will usually add a lot of greenery around the creche and small white lights.
St. Mary’s, Fontana
For five years, St. Mary’s has had an outdoor nativity scene at the front of their church property facing Jurupa Avenue in Fontana. The scene is flat and made of a half inch plastic. It’s elevated and fastened to bales of straw, and placed in front of the church signage with a spotlight that highlights the scene at night.
“Our church looks like a warehouse and people don’t know it’s a church,” said Father Albert Utzig, Pastor. “Even though there are many, many lights in our neighborhood, very few nativity scenes are out.”
This year, the parish has added a new nativity scene that a parishioner brought from Colombia.
The pieces are about six inches tall and include 99 sheep. The set is housed in a portable wooden box enclosure in the shape of a stable and decorated with greenery and a painted backdrop. The scene is displayed during outdoor Masses and then closed and stored indoors.
In the past, children would cut out long strips of paper that would be used as straw for the manger, families made ornaments for the Christmas trees and the Filipino community would add the parol, or star lantern, to the nativity scene for Christmas Masses. It’s a tradition for the parish community to work together to decorate for the Christmas Masses.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, Riverside
The Riverside parish has had their nativity scene for about 60 years. It was made at a Catholic store in San Diego, according to parishioner Becky Braeger. The creche is typically located to the right of the main altar and some moss and green sprigs are added around the scene. White lights dot the dark backdrop as stars.
Diana Nelson, the parish’s liturgical coordinator, says that a parishioner added a beautiful but simple stable several years ago to bring the pieces together. The set is elevated, and a natural color fabric covers the area below the scene. Every year, parishioners are drawn to kneel at the bottom of the creche to pray or leave gifts or offerings below it.
St. Francis de Sales, Riverside
St. Francis de Sales Parish has also had its nativity scene for about 60 years. Anthony Lopez, coordinator for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and a group of parishioners will gather this time of year to set up the two-foot tall nativity set.
The rest of the church is decorated with live poinsettias, but the Nativity Scene is kept simple with a few pieces of straw and small white lights. The creche is located below the altar with a small stable in the background. Steps lead up to the Nativity Scene where parishioners are welcomed to gaze upon and pray over the Christmas creche.
The Holy Name of Jesus Community, Redlands
The community has two locations, on Olive Avenue and Columbia Street. The nativity scene at the Olive Avenue location was purchased in 2004. The distressed style statues are typically placed just to the right of the sanctuary in the church. “They are very beautiful, and I enjoy using them every year for the Christmas season,” said Susie Herbst, arts and environment ministry leader.
According to Sharon Callon-Schwartz, director of Mission Advancement, parishioners built a frame around the nativity scene in the shape of a stable. “It’s a roof outline and wall outline,” she explained. “There isn’t a backdrop so that you can still see through it to the tabernacle behind it due to the tight space.”
The creche at the Columbia Street location has been used since before 2006. Nadine Orozco, the parish’s arts and environment coordinator, uses hay, a little white fabric around the manger and lots of poinsettias. There is a small space off to the right of the altar where she arranges the 35-inch-tall pieces every year. Several years ago, her husband built a little house and a decorative ladder to add to the set.
Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, San Bernardino
In 2004, Lorene Sponsler gifted the parish with a four-foot-tall nativity scene in memory of her husband, Dr. John Sponsler. The couple were actively involved in parish life and Dr. Sponsler was a respected psychiatrist in the community. He died on Thanksgiving Day in 2003 after a nine-month long battle with metastatic melanoma.
“The church really sustained me and him,” said Lorene. “It was a hard thing to go through. The church represented so much peace and comfort for us. The nativity scene was something that could last in the Cathedral.”
Caren Contreras, coordinator of liturgical decoration, sets up the special nativity scene each year. It’s placed on the left side of the altar, some hay and red cloth are added, and a Christmas tree in the background. This year, Christmas Masses will be held in the parish courtyard, and a new smaller, portable, outdoor nativity set was purchased in order to preserve the parish’s original indoor creche. Contreras will add a large shooting star with a light above the outdoor area where Masses will be held.
St. Anthony, Upland
St. Anthony parish is 25 years old and has had its nativity sets for almost as long. The 11-piece outdoor creche was made in Italy and is arranged in front of the church property facing San Antonio and 21st Street in Upland. Straw covers the area around the life-size pieces and a large barn structure houses the set.
The indoor nativity scene is smaller and also includes a stable structure. Beds of white cotton cover the area around the pieces, seemingly enhancing the antique whimsical look of the statues. Straw is also sprinkled around the scene. Poinsettias are added below it and Christmas trees in the background. According to liturgy director Shelley Reed, both nativity scenes were made in Italy.
Malie Hudson is a freelance writer based in Riverside.