CINCINNATI, Ohio — Amid the twinkling lights, festive decorations and busy holiday shopping, the true meaning of Christmas for Christians and Catholics around the world is centered on the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Inspired by the incarnation of the word made flesh, St. Francis of Assisi created the first live Nativity scene in the Italian village of Greccio 800 years ago. This season – as many others for the past 20 years – a Franciscan friar in Cincinnati, Ohio, is keeping the tradition alive in the hopes of inspiring others to appreciate the reason for the Christmas season.
Called the crèche, the scene constructed by St. Francis in 1223 recreated the story of Jesus’ birth using live animals and a manger – ordinary items telling an extraordinary story. Eight hundred years later, the crèche endures, transcending cultural, geographic and generational boundaries, with nearly every Catholic household having its own Nativity set.
Franciscans around the world are commemorating the 800th anniversary of the crèche with a variety of activities. In Cincinnati, Ohio, Br. Tim Sucher, OFM, has collected an impressive 75 crèches from around the world. These are on display at St. Francis Seraph Church, where hundreds come annually to see the story of Jesus' birth told through the lens of different cultural traditions.
The anniversary is especially meaningful for Br. Tim, whose love for the Christmas season dates to his childhood. In December 1956, with his mother in the hospital, Br. Tim and his brother spent Christmas with their maternal grandmother. Her large Nativity scene with its 12-inch figures struck a chord with the young boys, who saved their allowance to buy their own Nativity scene.
Br. Tim has since amassed a large collection of crèches, acquired through his own travels or donations from others. The collection takes a crew of volunteers six weeks to unpack and set up at St. Francis Seraph each year. One of the most prominent crèches was created by Fontanini, an Italian company that has been making Nativity scenes for more than 110 years. The set contains 75 pieces.
Adding to the Christmas spirit at St. Francis Seraph is the live manger scene in the church courtyard, featuring real donkeys, sheep, and goats amid life-sized figurines of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Br. Tim has been collecting Christmas crèches since 1956. Sharing his collection each year has become a labor of love. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Connelly, OSU)
Live animals are brought into the city for the living Nativity. They are lovingly cared for by Br. Tim and a team of volunteers. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Connelly, OSU)
The crèches are displayed at St. Francis Seraph throughout the month of December. All are welcome to come and see the display. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Connelly, OSU)
Creating joy for others is at the heart of Br. Tim’s annual labor of love, as is spreading the message of God’s love for humanity as St. Francis did 800 years ago. Br. Tim feels this message is needed now more than ever.
“Sin seems to reign in our world today,” he said. “We experience huge divisions among people, wars and talk of wars. There is extreme poverty and injustice throughout the world. All one has to do is walk down our city streets and one will encounter many people who are poor and homeless. As a result, it is difficult to truly believe that God’s love and mercy is present today.”
The incarnation – the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus – is central to Franciscan spirituality, emphasized Br. Tim, who is pastoral associate at St. Francis Seraph Parish. “It emphasizes the love of God, God becoming one of us, our God who knows us and walks in our shoes. St. Francis used the things around him, the hay, the animals, to bring this message to the people of his time, and that continues through the tradition of the crèche centuries later.”
“I would like to suggest that if we were to enter more fully into the Incarnation, not only as individuals but as a Church and a nation, the world would be a different place,” Br. Tim added. “If we would live in the reality of God’s unconditional love, our lives, our Church and our world would be filled with love, mercy and justice. God entered into a relationship with us by becoming one of us. As followers of Jesus, we must do the same thing. We need to enter into relationships with people. Not bang them over the head, not judge them, not convert them, but we need to be in relationships with people. And you don’t do that behind four walls.”
The display at St. Francis Seraph Church opened on Nov. 24 and runs through early January.
About the Franciscan Friars/Order of Friars Minor
The Franciscan friars of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a coast-to-coast Catholic brotherhood devoted to living the Gospel in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. They serve the poor, the forgotten and the marginalized alongside people of goodwill located across the United States, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Founded in October 2023, the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe was formed from friars coming together from provinces that are part of the long history of the Order of Friars Minor in the United States. Combining their gifts has allowed them to renew their Franciscan witness to American society and begin an exciting new chapter of their history in the United States. They go forth under the guidance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness, whose compassion and advocacy for the oppressed and suffering calls them to live in solidarity with the marginalized. To learn more, connect with @friarsguadalupe on Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter) and LinkedIn.
Media requests should be directed to Kerting Baldwin, Ed.D., APR, at email@example.com.
Painting of St. Francis and the Christ child by Br. Michael Reyes, OFM. All rights reserved.