A doll for Christmas at the museum

Sherwood parish donates century-old baby Jesus doll

GREEN BAY — For many children, Christmas involves dolls. For the Green Bay Diocese Museum, this Christmas also involves a doll. Not a new one, but an old one.

Earlier this year, a baby Jesus doll came to the museum from Sacred Heart Parish in Sherwood.

A wax baby Jesus doll, made in the early 1900s, is pictured in the home of Sherry Steffel, president of the board of directors for the Green Bay Diocese Museum. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Cheryl Dewing of the parish had read about the museum in The Compass and recalled the doll that had been in storage for years.

“It had been in the rectory in a dresser,” Dewing told The Compass. “When our current pastor (Fr. Mike Betley) moved here, he found it.  Because I do the (church) decorating, he gave it to me.”

The doll, first believed to be wax over papier mache, had a 1986 appraisal slip with it from S & S Doll Hospital of Sarasota, Fla. That appraisal dated it from 1905 to 1920. Sherry Steffel, president of the board of directors for the Green Bay Diocese Museum picked up the doll from Dewing and later took it to a De Pere doll expert, Kathy Emmel. Emmel has since tightened that date to 1910-1920 and clarified that the doll is entirely made of wax — without the usual loss of toes or fingers.

The Florida appraisal stated that the doll had been made in England by Domenico Pierotti. The Pierotti family made dolls, including wax dolls, from the late 1700s to the early 20th century. However, the mark on the back of the doll’s head has been damaged and the name of the maker is not clear. Emmel believes it is more likely a German doll.

If the doll is not a Pierotti, Steffel thinks it might be from the Paul Schmidt Company in Germany. The Compass reached out to T. H. Stemper in Milwaukee, but Dan Stemper said they had only seen one wax doll recently — a doll of Mary as an infant that was donated to St. Mary Oratory in Wausau. St. Mary Oratory did not respond to requests for information.

Steffel said that German immigrants often had living Nativity scenes at church at Christmas and that this doll may have been used in one of those. She hopes that someone may remember the doll and its history.

The donated doll has paperweight blue eyes and blond hair. The wax over the face and hands has darkened with age, giving a golden tone. It wore a sateen gown, which had some staining and was determined to be a later addition. The undergarment gown is in better shape and is consistent with the age of the doll, so that was retained.

The 1986 appraisal set the doll’s value, then at $1,400, to $1,700.

Originally, Steffel had hoped that the doll might be used by Bishop David Ricken at the televised Christmas Eve Mass at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral.

“With those old items like that — if we get it in the cathedral,” Steffel told The Compass before the donation was complete, “I would want to put it in our Nativity set for a couple of days at Christmas. I wouldn’t want it out all the time — it might be fragile.”

Unfortunately, the doll proved too large for the present manger at the cathedral. Dan Vanden Avond, sacristan, measured the current Fontanini baby Jesus against the wax doll. Steffel said that the plan now is to see if a new manger could be built for next Christmas, “when the church is packed again.”