Barb Sieminski
Freelance Writer
December 19, 2017 // Parish

Distressed crèche restored at St. Charles Borromeo

Barb Sieminski
Freelance Writer

The healing hands of a carpenter and a restorer have taken a broken, tattered crèche at St. Charles Borromeo Church, Fort Wayne, and made it whole again — taken it from the ashes of a fire so it can re-tell the old, old story of a stall in Bethlehem.

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The church, founded in 1957, displayed an original Nativity scene on Christmas Eve 1958 at its first midnight Mass. The crèche was created with vibrantly-colored ceramic figurines, a wooden stable and greenery. In 1963 a fire rushed through the parish, damaging the crèche; but Father Edward I. Hession (later Msgr. Hession) had the figurines painted gold in time to celebrate Christmas 1964 with them on display. The figures continued to be used for 11 more years.

A new church was built, and the first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Eve 1975. However, the old gold figurines were put away in storage, because a new Nativity display was constructed for the modern church.

Father Tom Shoemaker, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Fort Wayne, stands with the parish crèche he helped restore. The figures were first displayed in the original St. Charles Church, right, in 1958. Damaged by fire, they were salvaged but fell into disuse; Father Shoemaker and restoration artist Bridgett Santiago reconstructed them for display this year. Joe Romie

About 20 years ago the old statues were brought out of storage, badly in need of repairs. Parishioner Ken Toki made the repairs, fixing chips and broken pieces and then painting them a terra cotta color. While the new Nativity figures retained their place of honor in the front of the church, the historic ones were exhibited at the back of the church.

“Unfortunately, they were displayed at floor level,” said parish pastor Father Tom Shoemaker, “where eventually a young child knocked over several figures. Mary and Joseph were broken in many pieces, which necessitated another trip to storage.”

In light of the parish’s 60th anniversary this year, it was decided to bring back the historic figurines again and put them to use while creating a Nativity scene worthy of display in the church.

Father Shoemaker used his woodworking, painting and crafting skills to bring the burned and smoke-stained Nativity figurines back to life. Bridgett Santiago, a Fort Wayne restoration artist, was commissioned to restore the broken statues.

“The most challenging repair was to the St. Joseph figure,” said Santiago. “St. Joseph was smashed into almost 100 pieces. I had to put it together like a puzzle and fill it upside down with plaster because it was hollow and the opening was at the bottom, so as it was repaired I filled it with plaster. That statue alone took a few months to completely restore it.”

The other pieces of the Nativity set were chipped, and some of the broken lambs were shattered pretty badly, she said.

“All the items needed to be painted the same terra cotta color and then sprayed with Clear Coat to protect the finish,” explained Santiago.

The pieces of the crèche are about 18 inches high, depending whether they were standing or kneeling. Father Shoemaker, who grew up working with wood and whose father and grandfather both had woodshops, developed a many-faceted scene, and created a stable using wood, sheets of insulation, insulation foam and plaster. Though he has been the pastor at St. Charles Borromeo for only about a year, he previously used his talents at St. Jude Catholic Church in Fort Wayne to construct a similarly elaborate crèche display — so he was well-versed in creating worshipful scenery.

The restored display is set high enough to avoid danger from toddlers, and Cathy Jacob sewed a skirt to surround the base of the scene. The Nativity will be on display through the Christmas season in the new gathering space of the church.

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