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My Nativity Story: Michele Devitt

I received my first nativity while in college; my parents sent a set from Hawaii where I was raised. It has a coconut hut stable and all the figures are made of seeds and pods from Hawaiian plants. (picture 1) (In Hawaii we played outdoors a lot and mostly ran around barefoot. Pods from the kiawe tree look like 1” pineapples and they poke your feet horribly. These trees grow on the beach on the western side of the island of Hawaii where we would take our vacations, camping on the beach. When running into the ocean I vividly remember the pain of stepping on these seeds. Now they make up darling nativity pieces…sheep!) (picture 2)

Years later, I went to a creche exhibit in the small town of Menomonie, Wisconsin where we were living, and it renewed my interest in how many beautiful nativities have been created all over the world. My collection started slowly as nativities were purchased from Christian store catalogues, found on trips and gifted to me from my husband and young children. Many of these were inexpensive nativities, but we were raising four children on a parochial school income and my doing childcare so I couldn’t afford to spend much on nativities. (picture 3)

In 1997, on one of our trips down to Ohio to visit family at Christmas, we drove an extra 2 hours to Dayton to see the exhibit of the University of Dayton Marian Library‘s crèche collection that was held at Mount Saint John’s Gallery. It was amazingly inspiring! (Never in my wildest dreams would I have anticipated I would one day work with that collection and my husband would work at the Bergamo Center at Mount Saint Johns!) After that visit we went on to Columbus and found a Third World Gallery that had many international nativities for 5O% off after Christmas sale. I went crazy… and with a February birthday I picked out 10 sets that my family could give me! With my collection up to 41 sets I then decided to begin cataloging my collection. (picture 4)

I have been to most of the FOTC conventions and meetings and this has been a great opportunity to meet other interesting collectors. I always come away with new ideas from the presentations and inspirations to create my own creches. And of course, I always buy nativities to add to my collection!

Once my children were all in school, I began teaching art in several Catholic schools. As an art teacher it brought me great joy to have all my students make nativities every year. Kindergartners started by making clay sheep, first graders made Baby Jesus in a manger and in second grade their skills were advanced enough that they could create Mary, Joseph, and those who were worked diligently had time to make an angel. By the third grade Shepherd’s were crafted and in fourth grade the three wisemen. Fifth graders made nativities out of fabric wrapped around thread cones, beads and embellishments. Older students made miniature nativities out of colorful polymer clay. One year, the eighth graders made crèches out of glass that was fused in a small kiln. With summers off, I began volunteering at University of Dayton helping catalogue creches and designing and creating settings for cultural nativity sets. I enjoyed this work very much it was a spiritual and artistic fulfillment! In 2012, a position as Curatorial Assistant and Volunteer Coordinator opened up and I was hired! (picture 5)

Until Covid layoffs, I was still working at the University of Dayton as a curator of the creche collection. It was my dream job! Unfortunately, the position was terminated and all of the volunteer programs assisting in maintaining the collection came to an abrupt halt. Creating new settings, developing exhibits, giving tours, and coordinating the volunteers was the best job I ever had! (picture 6). That's me in the middle.

As an artist myself, I dabble in many mediums. I have made nativities from clay, glass, wood, beads, wire, fabric, slumped bottles and natural materials. I also enjoy making settings for some of the nativities I have. This is my new 2020 setting, using a carved wood set from Guyana. (picture 7) I have also made nativities as commissions and wedding gifts.

This past Christmas, I put together several exhibits from my own collection and displayed them at a couple parishes. I plan to continue doing this in future years. After all, why collect if you don’t share?

By: Michele Devitt Jan. 2021

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