BRIDGEPORT — The Rev. Matthew Bernelli was like a kid with a train set as he showed off his famous Nativity scene, now set up at St. Andrew Church in the North End after numerous Christmases on the East Side.
“It came out good,” said the Catholic priest. “I love the little details.”
There is no engine chugging along on tracks, desecrating the holy scene depicting Jesus Christ’s birth. But there is a 15-by-8-foot handcrafted tabletop landscape populated with a variety of human and animal figurines in different settings, all lovingly placed by the nearly 80-year-old Bernelli.
“Some are ceramic. Some a papier-mache type thing. Some are wooden,” he said.
And some are motorized, like a donkey placed by the manger where the baby Jesus is displayed. The animal gently cocks its head.
“It moves every 10 seconds,” Bernelli noted.
There are figures cutting wood, feeding chickens, making shoes, roasting meat on a spit and taking bread from a brick oven.
“Then there’s the lady making polenta. This is the best one,” Bernelli said, pointing out the figurine stirring the mock pot of cornmeal.
“Oh, I didn’t show you this one,” Bernelli added suddenly, pointing to a man at a table, hoisting a mug. “The guy that drinks.”
For years Bernelli, who hails from Italy, where Nativity scenes are a tradition and often an art form, set up his display at his church, St. Mary, on the East Side. Then two years ago Bernelli retired.
Rather than move in to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport’s retirement residence in Stamford — “Deep inside I’m not 80, yet” — Bernelli got assigned to St. Andrew’s on Anton Street. He is a pastor in residence.
His Nativity display, which he has accumulated over several decades, came with him, and this year has a place of honor in front of St. Andrew’s altar.
Bernelli’s passion and inspiration for his Nativity comes from his Italian roots and the time he spent studying theology in Rome.
“I would say all the churches in Italy have a big Nativity scene — everybody. And mechanical, too, with statues moving,” Bernelli said, adding: “In Rome, (it) is like a competition, who does the best Nativity scene. I look at all these big displays. You learn. You learn.”
Bernelli collected moss in the woods to cover his faux landscape. The road that winds to the manger is covered in sawdust and lined with small white stones.
“I put small (figurines) in back and biggest in front, so it gives a little depth,” Bernelli said. “And they’re all oriented going to the manger.”
He set it up over four days during the first full week of December, between morning Mass and funerals.
The process included crawling underneath for a little wiring, as well as hooking up a humidifier to pump puffs of steam out of a cooking pot over a fake fire. That fire has flickering lights. The birds in a tree chirp. There are running water wheels and fountains.
All of this is turned off during Mass, Bernelli noted — “It’s too distracting.”
Otherwise, he happily shows it off, particularly to young people.
“So kids who come to school, church, can see what Christmas is all about,” Bernelli said. “It’s a lot of work, but everybody enjoys it. As a priest, that’s our mission — to put the Christ back in Christmas.”