Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory has hosted an annual display of creches from around the world since 1979. Photo by Alan Hustak.

Away in a St. Joseph’s Oratory manger

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • December 19, 2015

MONTREAL - What began as a modest display of some 25 cribs in 1979 has blossomed into a popular Montreal tradition at St. Joseph’s Oratory. This year, the Nativity has been interpreted by more than 200 artists from around the world in the form of a multi-media exposition of figurines, carvings and paintings that depict the birth of Christ.

The priest who started it all 36 years ago, curator emeritus Fr. Andre Bergeron, came up with the idea because “it is a story that endures, it is cyclical like a wheel that keeps on turning. No one ever tires of telling it through art. “

The theme of this year’s display — A Star for You — pays homage to UNESCO’s designation of 2015 as the international year of light. Inspired by Acadian singer Angèle Arsenault’s composition “Y’a une étoile pour vous,” the display runs until the end of March. It presents the Holy Family as aboriginals, blacks, Asians, and in some cases, as otherworldly creatures.

A crèche from Syria, for example, is unique in that the star above the figures is really the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic. The oldest depiction is a ceramic plate from 1550, the newest a crèche made of sand sculptures.

One of the most elaborate is an exhibit from Rwanda carved from black cedar wood. The largest, which dominates the entry hall, is a theatrical life-size wax figure display by Joseph Guardo, which used to be installed outside the Oratory each Christmas.

The most delicate Nativity scene is a mother of pearl carving from Israel. Some of the crèches are whimsical, other’s like the Holy Family as mice, are surreal, and one which features Jesus, Mary and Joseph as sculptured bowling pins was inspired by folk art.

“All the pieces are of museum quality and are all selected for their artistic quality,” said curator Chantal Turbide. “A selection committee determines what we accept in the collection.

“Most of the cribs on display have been donated to the Oratory over the years but we have a small acquisition budget which allows us to buy smaller pieces. We don’t accept everything that is given to us. We evaluate all the donations.”

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

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