Nativity set from 1920s returns to Stockbridge parish

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | December 1, 2016

ALLOUEZ — A Nativty set that dates back to the 1920s has returned to its original home. The 20-piece set is now permanently displayed in a handcrafted case in the entrance of St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Church in Stockbridge.

Fr. Mike Betley, pastor of St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Parish in Stockbridge, greets parishioner Dave Hoerth before Mass Nov. 26 in front of the restored Nativity set display near the church entrance. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)
Fr. Mike Betley, pastor of St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Parish in Stockbridge, greets parishioner Dave Hoerth before Mass Nov. 26 in front of the restored Nativity set display near the church entrance. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

The roots of St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Church trace back to 1854. The current church was dedicated by Bishop Paul Rhode on Oct. 10, 1923. Fr. Paul Herb served as pastor at that time.

In celebration of the new church, the Gerhartz family purchased a Nativity set as a gift to the parish. The set was displayed during Advent and the Christmas season for approximately 50 years.

In 1974, the set was retired and replaced. Fr. David Koehne accepted bids for the original set. Marvin and Ruby Gerner, the top bidders, displayed the 20 pieces in their home in place of a Christmas tree. Ruby felt that the Nativity set represented the season and a tree was not necessary. In 2015, after having it in her home for 40 years, Ruby gave the set back to the parish for the silent auction at the St. Mary Fall Festival.

Three couples from the parish — Loren and Kris Birkenmeier, Bob and Sandy Bowe and Marv and Gail Thiel — set out to return the set to the church.

“We made sure that we were the high bidder,” said Loren Birkenmeier. “We put it the church basement for storage.”

Baby Jesus is one of the restored Nativity figurines at St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Church in Stockbridge. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)
Baby Jesus is one of the restored Nativity figurines at St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Church in Stockbridge. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

The three couples formed a committee and worked on a restoration plan with Fr. Mike Betley, pastor at St. Mary and St. John-Sacred Heart Parish, Sherwood/St. John. Several pieces were broken, cracked and chipped. The Baby Jesus piece was missing fingers on both hands and one arm was broken.

Mary Rass of Renovo Studio in Green Bay restored the set. She had worked on a life-size, outdoor Nativity set in the past, but this project marked her first of this nature. The repair work was the most difficult task, she said.

“Recreating the missing parts was not easy,” she said. “Also, trying to get the paint to match the original paint was important. You don’t want the paint to look like today’s colors. It’s always a challenge to work on pieces that mean so much to people and the parish.”

“My wife and I went to get it when it was finished,” said Birkenmeier. “We were so awed by it because it was so beautiful. Mary did an amazing job. Everyone is just dumbfounded by the beauty of it.”

The set was displayed on a side altar of the church last spring following restoration.

“A lot of our parishioners remember it from when they were younger,” said Birkenmeier. “We were concerned about people picking up the pieces, so we wanted to put it in a long case.

Parish member Terry Ecker designed and built an oak case with assistance from Andy Schumacher. Barbara Fett painted a background mural. All the labor, wood, paint and LED lighting were donated. The only expenses were the restoration of the pieces, electrician fees and sliding glass doors for the display.

Fr. Betley will rededicate the Nativity set at the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass. He will bring the Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus pieces to the front of the altar. The set will then remain on display in the church entrance.

“People will be able to see it during Advent for the first time since 1973,” said Birkenmeier. “I’m thrilled with it. It’s nice to turn the entrance lights on and see that the Nativity set is home again.”

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