This is a creche which was among the vast collection of 1,000 crèches collected over the years at Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory. Photo by Paolo Gaetano, Getty Images via

World of crèches at home at the Oratory

  • December 20, 2023

St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal is home to not only the heart of St. Brother André Bessette but also to a collection of close to 1,000 crèches gathered from every corner of the world.

Since renovations began at the Oratory in 2018, only a small number of the crèches have been on display and the exhibit has been relegated to a corner room opposite the gift shop.

The Oratory is undergoing a multi-year, $80-million overhaul that will eventually result in a new welcome centre, museum and a panoramic view of the city from the iconic dome. In the meantime, museum curator Chantal Turbide has had to make hard choices as to which pieces to bring out of storage.

“It is a small exhibition, so we have to use the small crèches, and sometimes we have had to reduce the number of figures in each set,” said Turbide.

Each crèche Turbide has chosen for the current exhibition is a treasure. There is a Brazilian amethyst crystal containing delicate metal figures of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, bold wooden carvings of bearded, noble high-browed shepherds from Zambia and a squat enameled terracotta set shaped by Keena, an Indigenous artist from Montreal.

In perhaps the smallest Nativity set of the collection, tiny, intricate salt-dough figures are nestled in the two halves of a walnut. One contains the Holy Family, the other the Wise Men, as well as a content-looking camel. The little offering is from the Czech Republic.

The collection found its origins in 1979, with a small display of home-spun Nativity scenes crafted by Montreal school children. The next year, Fr. André Bergeron, curator of the Oratory Museum and an artist in his own right, launched an exhibit of 25 crèches from five countries. By the time Turbide was appointed curator in 2010, the exhibit displayed 350 crèches.

“It was too many,” she laughs.

Through the years, friends of the Oratory would contribute to the collection, bringing back their finds to Montreal from travels abroad.

“I do it myself,” said Turbide. “Especially when we have a country missing. We have crèches from 100 countries, but there are, what, some 220 countries in the world?  When I go somewhere, and it is a place where we don’t have a crèche yet, I go looking for one to add to our collection.”

A prominent feature of the current exhibit is the life-size Nativity scene that was for 30 years the outdoor display at the shrine. Commissioned by the Oratory in 1951, the polychromed plaster figures were created by Italian-born sculptor Joseph Guardo. In 1980, costume designer François Barbeau was engaged to clothe the figures before they made their move inside to the Oratory Museum.

In the wake of the current renovations, the future of the crèche collection is uncertain.

“It is not all decided for the future, that it is a hard question,” said Turbide.

The museum archives contain not only the crèches but an extensive collection of devotional and historical items.

“We have a lot of different objects, over 20,000, that are very interesting for the history of art and architecture in Quebec and the Oratory, and of Brother André,” said Turbide.

For now, Turbide is expecting announcements regarding the renovations and an update to the building plans next month.

“I hope that the future will provide us with the opportunity to continue to exhibit these precious things at the Oratory.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.