St. Mary’s Congregation Recreates City of Bethlehem

There was something missing from St. Mary’s on the city’s East Side, something that became more urgent as summer turned to fall and the subject of Christmas decorations came up. Until a few months ago, St. Mary’s was guided by the Rev. Matthew Bernelli who had been with the church about 12 years. During those years he set up an elaborate Nativity scene in front of the altar. But when he retired, that Nativity scene went with him.

“So without Father Bernelli’s nativity, we were at a loss at first,” the Rev. Rolando Torres said. “Then Martha Bernal, who is from Colombia, along with her husband, Edgar, and a lot of other people here, came to the rescue.” What the Bernals and their three adult daughters did was to recreate in miniature not just a Nativity scene, but the entire city of Bethlehem.

The new tableau took shape not in the chapel, but in a side chamber known as the “crying room.” This is where mothers take their fussing babies for a bottle and some calming words before rejoining the Mass. “Everyone brought something — the people go crazy with this,” Bernelli said, eyeing the dozens of lovingly placed figurines. “As you might expect, we got quite a few Marys and Josephs, so most of them had to be reassigned to other duties, like shepherds and other citizens of Bethlehem.”

Bernelli said that he first wanted to keep it simple — a small creche. “But then Martha came to me and said, ‘Let’s do this with a Latin American perspective, like it’s done in Colombia — a Belen.’ ” ”Belen” is Spanish for “Bethlehem,” and as it suggests, it involves a recreation in miniature of the city where Christ was born — with its merchants, shopkeepers, farmers and a host of others. The tiny city began to take shape in November. Construction foam was used to create the tri-level landscape where houses, a Roman-style bathhouse, the inn and the famous stable soon sprouted. Larger official-looking buildings are on the top level, while humble homes occupy the other two levels. Electricians wired the city with miniature lightbulbs. A brook with running water flows at the left from the hilltop where Mary and Joseph wait for the arrival of the Christ child under the watchful eye of the angel Gabriel.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first presepio in Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve in 1223. That one used a combination of live actors and carved figures. The Nativity scene idea spread quickly throughout Europe and within a few centuries the creche — now with miniature figures, began to appear at Christmastime not only in churches, but in the homes of the faithful, too. As is the custom with many Roman Catholics, the display in St. Mary’s was missing the baby Jesus when reporters turned out last week to check on the progress of the display. That figurine would have to wait until midnight on Christmas Eve before it’s placed in the manger. ”We had to make everything here, and just about all of it is hand-made,” said Bernal, who arrived in the U.S. from Colombia with her family 12 years ago. ”And next year, it’ll be even be more fantastic, with live fish and maybe moving figures.” The scene was blessed by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano about a week ago.

Opened in 1988, St. Mary’s is one of the newer Roman Catholic churches in the city. The parish is one of the city’s oldest, however; it first came into being in 1857. A new church was opened in 1877. It was badly damaged in a fire in 1927, and reopened in 1928. The old brick church was demolished in 1982 to make way for the present chapel.

By John Burgeson | Published in