|St. Ignatius of Antioch’s nativity scene has grown over the years into an entire village. Members of the parish’s Art and Environment Committee collaborate on designing a unique scene each year.
What began as a simple display of the Holy Family at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church has evolved into a full-fledged Nativity village, beloved by parishioners and visitors from the community.
“In the very early years it consisted primarily of just figures arranged on a table,” said parishioner Sister Elizabeth Miller. “In the mid ’90s, the parish began purchasing some of the 12-inch Fontanini figures. Year by year we’d get one more or two more, and maybe a few sheep. Then we, the committee, tried to look for more creative ways to present the items.”
The committee is the parish’s Art and Environment Committee, chaired by Liz Dudas, who settled in at St. Ignatius in 1997, and quickly began making her mark.
“I asked Father John Henrick, pastor at the time, if he would allow me to put up a simple symbol for the Sundays of Lent, that somehow spoke to the gospel readings,” said Dudas. “He said that would be fine.”
For example, the first week of Lent deals with the Temptation of Jesus in the Desert. For this, Dudas placed round stones and bread in front of the ambo. Each subsequent week she came up with different items that were thematically relevant.
At the end of Lent, St. Ignatius liturgy director Sister Maria Patterson asked Dudas if she’d consider creating a display on a weekly basis throughout the year. “I said I would, but that I’d need a lot of help,” recalled Dudas.
An ad in the church bulletin brought together 10 people, who have been actively beautifying the church since 1998.
The committee has planning meetings seasonally – and gathered recently to discuss the St. Ignatius Advent celebration. They review the readings for a particular Sunday, and as a group come up with symbols that would best bring out the message of the scriptures for that Mass. Then individual committee members take on the responsibility for certain days.
“What we’re trying to do is to help the parishioners see that the Word is a living word,” Dudas explained. “We want the Word to come into them, to help them connect with the Word in their everyday lives.”
That thinking influenced the enhancement of the parish’s Nativity display too, which naturally fell under the responsibilities of the Art and Environment Committee. “I thought, there’s gotta be something we can do to make it a little bit more meaningful,” said Sister Elizabeth. “I finally came up with the word that I didn’t have when we started this: a context. Our display didn’t really have a context.”
The first improvement was placing the figures on different levels, which gave the exhibit more depth. In 2010, Sister Elizabeth began experimenting with structures to flesh out the scene even more. Her first efforts were a produce stand and a tent for one of the kings.
These additions were a definite hit. Encouraged by positive feedback, Sister Elizabeth embarked on building an inn in 2011. “How can you have the Christmas story where there’s no room in the inn, when you don’t even have an inn,” said Sister Elizabeth. “That turned out to be quite a project, because we were using the 12-inch Fontanini figures, and the inn had to be kind of large to be in proportion.”
Sister Elizabeth has never had any formal art training. Her mother was a seamstress who taught her to sew. Her father was a “jack of all trades” who was great with his hands and built the house she grew up in.
“I got some of my training from him, because at 3 or 4 years old he would send me to the basement to get tools and nails and screws for him,” Sister Elizabeth said. “I knew all that at that age – better than I know it now! So I must have inherited some of my creativity from them.”
Wherever she gets her talent and inspiration from, the Nativity has become a multi-media endeavor. For the inn she used a plywood platform, covered with stick floral foam to create a sidewalk effect, and then some small strips of wood and cardboard. She covered the outside with drywall mud and painted it, creating a stucco effect.
Over the past few years she’s added several date palm trees, a corral for the stable and a winemaker’s shop. She has continued to embellish the display with fabric and spray-painted brown wrapping paper. The Nativity is currently inhabited by the Holy Family, the three kings, a shepherd, angels and numerous village people, along with a camel, cow, donkey and a flock of sheep. It’s approximately 12-feet-by-12-feet and occupies a treasured spot in the narthex.
“It has become quite elaborate,” said Dudas. “We tease that pretty soon it will be out on Bell Road!”
Sister Elizabeth believes last year’s presentation was the prettiest yet. “We had a lot of different levels, and the whole thing seemed a bit more coordinated and flowed better from one scene to the next. We’ve sort of created these little environments that contribute to a tableau. It shows that there were these every day activities going on in the village, and then they had this spectacular event of Jesus being born.”
The St. Ignatius Nativity debuts on Dec. 12, is officially lit on Christmas Eve, and will remain up until the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. It is open to the general public.