Father Robert Tucker, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Litchfield, shows some of the crèches in his collection. (Photo by Jack Sheedy)
LITCHFIELD – He stores them in the attic and in the basement. Some are on a high closet shelf in the sacristy of St. Anthony of Padua Church. Dozens more are permanently displayed in the foyer, offices, kitchen and other rooms of the rectory.
Father Robert F. Tucker, St. Anthony’s pastor, has collected almost 300 crèches during his 42 years as a priest.
Some are large; some are miniature. Some are hundreds of years old; others were handcrafted within the past year or two. Many are made of various types of wood; many more are made of ceramic, paper, rock, porcelain and even volcanic ash.
They all tell one story: Jesus Christ, savior of the world, was born in a stable.
"What got me started was that people started to give me, as a priest, different crosses," he said. "You know, they would go away and buy crosses, and I said, ‘I don’t want any more crosses; I want to be more positive.’"
He began to pick up Nativity sets in his travels, and he let it be known that he preferred them to other symbols of the Catholic faith. He said that Saint Francis of Assisi may have created the first Nativity set nearly 800 years ago.
"I think Saint Francis wanted to have people be able to see, feel and touch the whole concept of what it meant to have Jesus, Mary and Joseph traveling," Father Tucker said. "I’ve always felt that it’s one of the most important signs or symbols of joy and hope – that God would become man and that we all are in union."
In the rectory’s entry are two miniature crèches from vastly different cultures and climates: a colorful set from Ecuador and another from Alaska, with an igloo for a stable.
"These are from the Philippines," he said, pointing to 16 figures made of lightweight balsam, one on each stair tread leading to the second floor. "I always tell the kids that Mary and Joseph had to walk up to Bethlehem, and so the little kids kind of climb up and they see the kings and shepherds and they get up to the top to see the angels and the baby."
On the mantle in a room in the rectory is a Lladró handcrafted porcelain crèche from Valencia, Spain. "My brother gave it to me for taking care of my mother," he said.
Nearby is a stylized crèche made of colored paper twisted into various shapes by a parishioner. "She said the camel and the donkey were the hardest. And then she made a lamb," he said. "It’s a very unique thing."
The smallest set is on a windowsill on the north side of the rectory. "This one comes from Japan," he said, indicating chubby figures measuring about an inch high.
"And then, this is one of the oldest pieces," he said. "This is a hand-cut sculpture from 500 million years ago from Celtic Casting. I bought this in England."
It is the black igneous rock, not the sculpture, that is 500 million years old, of course. It is only about 20 million years older than Minnesota-quarried stone sculpted into a figure given him by Mother Stephen Prokes of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.
Father Tucker keeps about 100 Nativity sets displayed in the rectory all year round. Beginning in Advent and throughout the Christmas season, he displays other crèches in both the rectory and the church.
"If I get doubles, then I give them away. I give them away as a wedding present or something," he said.
"I think religion can have a sense of joy and hope, and we don’t always bring that out well. I think that when you come in and there are Nativity sets around, there’s a sense of joy and there’s a Christmas spirit that lasts all the time," he said.