Saturday, December 12, 2009

For Love of the Baby Jesus

Posted by Webster
Last night Katie and I took our friend Joan to see a creche collection that has been 45 years in the making. Tom Petitte, FSM, received an 11-piece nativity set from his parents when he took his vows as a Marist brother in 1964. Today his collection fills four classrooms in a parish education center in Peabody, Massachusetts.

That first 11-piece set is at the bottom center of this photo: the Holy Family, three Wise Men, a couple of shepherds, three sheep . . . Now, as you can see, Brother Tom's collection of Fonantini nativity pieces, all created in one Italian village, is completely out of control.

And it's only the piece de resistance of a collection numbering 200 nativity scenes. Sets, all of which have been given to Brother Tom, “come from six continents, and are made out of a wide range of materials including banana leaves, corn husks, wood, porcelain, pewter, glass and fabric and bear the names of well-known brands of collectibles, including Lenox and Precious Moments. Brother Tom’s collection contains Peanuts figures, as well as animal figurines.” The quote is from the on-line edition of The Pilot, the venerable newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, which featured the story this week.

Here's another set, from Ireland. It belonged to Brother Tom's grandparents. 

I spoke briefly with Brother Tom, whom I expected to be a bit of a romantic, if not postively mushy about his hobby. He was anything but. Very matter-of-fact, very friendly without pushing himself, the Marist brother with a fully developed Friar Tuck paunch told me that he is an instructor of theology at Malden Catholic High School. He lives at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Peabody, where the display is mounted, and serves as a pastoral associate in the parish.

This is one of my favorite pieces in the collection. As the caption notes, it was created by a homeless woman.

Here's a set from Africa made of banana leaves.

Wandering through rooms filled with tables displaying the collection, it was easy to wander in my own memories: back to my Ammie's house in Minnesota in the 1950s. My grandmother, whom I wrote about here and who converted to the Catholic Church late in life, made a big deal about getting me over to her house on Lake Minnetonka on a wintry afternoon to set up her elaborate creche on the grand piano in her living room. She had twenty-six grandchildren when all was said and done, but I was, she always reminded me proudly, her oldest grandson, and I returned pride with pride. Since her oldest grandchild, my cousin Mary, lived in Connecticut, I had the singular honor of setting up the creche with Ammie—and first choice of her Christmas cookies.

This nativity scene from Brother Tom's collection was carved into a log by an Amish craftsman in Pennsylvania.

This one is a cat nativity. Yes, Brother Tom has a dog nativity too, but I thought posting cats and dogs in one place might cause trouble.

I want to thank my choir buddy Sheila Ouellette for tipping me off to the exhibition in Peabody. I know most readers of this blog live in other states, or on other continents, but if you're within driving distance, Brother Tom's lovely tribute to the Holy Family is on display today and tomorrow.

“My goal is to help people to focus on the real meaning of what Christmas is all about,” Brother Tom told The Pilot. I think he has succeeded.