Church nativity scenes

Church nativity scenes

Several months ago, I posted my Neighbours blog post onto Facebook with the pithy status, “I’m on TV! Sort of.” I thought it was pithy, anyway.

Jeff Hobbs, apart from being a Facebook friend, is producer of Channel Ten’s Mass For You At Home. He replied to the post with an offer to really appear on TV.

So I find myself, in January, preparing homilies for Trinity Sunday and the Feast of Corpus Christi. The two masses will be recorded tomorrow, though they won’t be broadcast until May and June.

Filming starts early, so I’m staying in Melbourne overnight, at St Mary Star of the Sea – my favourite “largest parish church in Australia.” (You might be surprised how many churches claim this title – each justified by compelling criteria!)

A Warrnambool reader visited St Mary’s before Christmas, and suggested I blog about the church’s impressive nativity scene. Not a bad idea, which I’m doing just in the nick of time, as Christmastide draws to a close.

When St Mary’s was restored a few years, the nativity set was also restored. Some sage some where congratulated the priests on the parish’s prized nativity set, which he sourced to nineteenth-century Italy. The priests, having no reason to doubt the tale, were suitably impressed.

It’s worth noting that the priests at St Mary’s are priests of Opus Dei. Their priestly ministry is centred predominantly on schools, universities, and catechetical centres. None of them had ministered in a parish before their assignment to West Melbourne.

Perhaps if they had, they would have recognised that their rare nineteenth-century figures are in fact a dime a dozen in parishes all over Australia. Off the top of my head, I can name three other places with the same nativity set: the Carmelite Convent in Kew; Infant Jesus in Koroit; and St Joseph’s in Tweed Heads. These figures were mass-produced in the mid-twentieth century, and they’re about as rare as hen’s beaks.

Undaunted, Fr Joe Pich resolved to make them something unique anyway. So he assembled a team of parishioners and proceeded to build an Australian woolshed to house the figures:

Every year since, the nativity scene has been bigger and better. This year’s crib featured a fully functional windmill, and an antique tap water feature. The ox and donkey and sheep were accompanied by wallabies, a kookaburra, a wombat and an echidna. The Maji no longer crowd the woolshed – they’ve expanded into a neighbouring chapel, with its own backdrop:

Who knows what improvements lie in wait next year? I’ve taken photos of a few other nativity scenes to conjure ideas. Not Hamilton regrettably. It was gone before I thought to!

Here is the nativity scene at Nazareth House, in Ballarat:

It’s a different scale, obviously. But I do like that ecclesiastical figure on our right. He’s holding a bag, and in the bag there is a slot for people to deposit their Christmas offerings. Much better than the grim money box chained to St Mary’s marble altar rail!

(Did you notice that the baby Jesus is covered by a wool blanket? I would never think to do that. But the Sisters of Nazareth did. I’d call that the feminine touch.)

Finally, here are some photos of the nativity scene at St Mary’s, Keilor Downs.

Again, it’s a different sort of display to St Mary’s, West Melbourne, but it does serve to illustrate that there is no limit to the number of figures in a nativity scene. The sky’s the limit!

  • MuMu

    AND the Australian bush creche at Star of the Sea also features beautiful bush sounds, a Powerpoint backdrop which changes and an angel who flies sedately over the woolshed/manger.
    The best feature for me is the raw fleece on which the Infant lays; probably just as uncomfortable and prickly as the straw in Bethlehem – a prefiguration of the Cross?
    Sometimes I wonder whether the parish cat, an immense Marmalade called Sebastian, might try and settle himself down on the fleece… but it’s probably not comfy enough for him…
    All the best with the televised Masses, Fr John.

  • Simon Hogan

    Oh Thanks for the information Fr. John but I really what to more history about the crypt not the about crib?
    Well I think at Christmas time people going to the church can get mixed up! Well mum thought the crib was the crypt but said to mum this is not crypt this the crib! So finally found the crypt too just the follow the signs! Yes it open it had artwork in there! Well I didn’t know about the crypt until you posted something on Facebook saying to someone “Sorry I couldn’t open the crypt for you.” I was just amaze about this crypt since! So will wait patience for you response Fr. John about the history of the crypt at St. Mary Star of the Sea! The Church is amazing but the crypt makes more amazing the Christmas crib is amazing too!
    Good Luck with Mass For You At Home I just watch Sundays and Bishop Les was on it!

  • Hi Fr. John,

    I personally don’t know you but was quite amazed to see the write-up and the pictures of the Nativity cribs on the website. The displays from the Ballarat and around various parishes are great. Just out of interest. I would like to invite you personally to the future Nativity Scene Displays that I create at St. Elizabeth’s Parish, Dandenong North.

    Here is the link to 2012 Nativity Scene:

    It has been a popular event of Australia since 2004 and I take this opportunity to invite parishioners and people from your region to visit our parish to view the great display that is usually created and is open to public around second week of Advent each year. The display truly captures the moments of the times of Christ. Every week the scene is changed and it describes the story right through Mary and Joseph entering in the town in search of a place to give birth, the birth of baby Jesus, visitation of shepherds and the three kings until the holy family flee from Bethlehem. It is interesting to watch the display and has grown over the years.

    All age groups love it especially it is like a story telling process each week. I am sure you will make it to visit our parish during this time.

    NOTE: Keep an eye on What’s On in the Kairos for the timing and details of the Australian Nativity Display.

    All the best for 2013. Hope to hear from you.


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