In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

December 23, 2022

For 100 Years, historic nativity scene has greeted patients and staff

By In the Loop

Sister Lauren Weinandt shares the story of a Nativity scene that has graced the grounds at Saint Marys for 100 years and shares holiday wishes from the Sisters of Saint Francis.

Each December, as the earth freezes and snow begins to fall, the grounds crew at the Saint Marys Campus completes a ritual that began 100 years ago.

They place the same 106-year-old nativity scene on the lawn at Saint Marys. It was first placed along Second Street and later moved to the South Side of the campus for staff and patients to see.

The nativity scene was purchased in 1916 by Sister Joseph Dempsey. It was initially placed in the Saint Marys chapel. Then, when the current chapel creche arrived, the Italian nativity scene was moved outside. This year marks its 100th year of surviving the elements.

Off-season, the display is lovingly cared for by the woodworking shop and given a few repairs if needed.

Sister Lauren Weinandt says the stable for the scene was built long before she came to the hospital in 1956. Bill Miller joined Mayo in 1959 and considered it a privilege to work on the creche each year until he retired from the woodworking shop. He did a complete rebuild of the structure in 1996, keeping most of the original wood.

The tradition of an outdoor creche was important to Sister Joseph and to the Sisters of Saint Francis.

The tradition of nativity sets traces back to St. Francis of Assisi. He recreated the nativity scene in 1223 with people and living animals. He chose as a setting a manger in a wooded area near the monastery of Greccio, Italy. Today, Nativities, or "Presepi," are one of the great traditions of Italian Christmas observances that have been embraced around the world.  

Sister Joseph believed it was important that the stable of the crib was always open and freely visible. "This is a symbol that everyone, regardless of race, nationality and faith, is welcome," she wrote.

Sister Joseph also believed, "In all things, our patients deserve the very best." As a result, all of the public nativity scenes at Saint Marys are from the Fontanini Company, known as the world's premiere nativity maker. Like many Italian companies, Fontanini is a family business, which began with the patriarch, Emanuele. He was at first an apprentice figurine painter at another company, but in 1908, started Fontanini as a small local business in a single room in the tiny Tuscan town of Bagni di Lucca.

Fontanini figures today are still made by the fourth generation of the family, who take pride in monitoring the production of their nativities, from the smallest of their nativity snow globes to the most elaborate indoor Fontanini sets and outdoor nativity displays. They have become highly valued collector's items, displayed at iconic locations across the world.  

"Every time I look at it, I think of Sister Joseph and the history of this manger scene," says Sister Lauren.

"And I am so grateful to Mayo Clinic for keeping this tradition alive," she says. "Now, after reading this, I hope you do too. A blessed holiday to you all from the sisters."

Tags: Staff Stories

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