Gwen Patton with one of her 900 creches. Photo by Lorraine Williams

A passion for creches

By  Lorraine Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • December 22, 2011

Markham, Ont. - When you arrive at the Patton home in Markham, there’s no mistaking that Christmas is coming. Not only are visitors greeted by a Nativity scene on the front lawn and a manger scene on an entire side wall, inside the house are more than 900 crèches.

Nativity scenes are a passion for Gwen Patton. She has some 450 of them on the main floor. They’re everywhere — in the living, family and dining rooms, the kitchen and along hallways. There are another 450 or so in the basement, with a few scattered in bedrooms.

Patton knows the story behind each one of them. Asked to name her favourite, she’s reluctant.

“It depends on where I am, what my mood is, what I’m doing,” she said. “Each one has a different meaning depending on those circumstances.”

The collection is a hodge-podge of various media. There are individual figures made of plaster, ceramic, glass, crystal, pottery and fabric. There’s some made of jewelry, framed cross-stitch or needlepoint (all done by Patton) and beautiful stained glass. She even has mugs and shirts bearing Nativity scenes.

Many, but not all, have individual figures representing the Holy Family, shepherds, the Magi, stable animals and angels. However, as the collection grows, there is a limit.

“I find now I’m choosing to bring home scenes with just the Holy Family, as I’m running out of space.”

The collection started when Patton was a Grade 2 teacher in Brampton in the 1950s. At Christmastime she created a crèche for her mainly immigrant students. Then in 1957 she purchased her first crèche — a plaster-of-Paris Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus — at Woolworth’s.

The collection gradually grew but took off in 2001 after Patton had a bad fall in her home. At that time she had about 50 crèches. Her family gave her a computer to entertain her through a long convalescence. “The first word I put in Google was ‘Nativity’ and when all the citations came up, there was no turning back,” she laughs.

Her hobby has become a family affair. Husband Bud drives her around to search out Nativity scenes far and wide.

“We go to garage sales, antique stores, auctions, private homes. We went to the Stouffville Blind Mission, Coyle’s in Tillsonburg and Frankenmuth in Michigan. And all our relatives and friends are on the lookout for us.

“It’s not an expensive hobby; we get lots of donated crèches.... My family says to me that they never have to worry any more about what to give me as a present.”

Her husband is helping her compile a written inventory of her collection. In the meantime, she sits among her beloved crèches, inspired by their religious symbolism and lovingly executed depictions.

“I even think we were guided by God to buy this corner lot because it’s the only house where you could use the entire side wall to show to the outside world the real meaning of Christmas.”

(Williams is a freelance writer in Markham, Ont.)

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