TAMPA, Florida — A Franciscan church distributed 800 Nativity ornaments on Friday, Dec. 18 at its Holiday Tent donation drop-off.  

The Franciscan Friars of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with Metropolitan Ministries, honored the 800th anniversary of the first crèche. 

These special ornaments feature the story of St. Francis’ first crèche and include invitations to Mass at Christmas. See the event and Mass schedule online.  

The story of the first crèche 

St. Francis of Assisi created the first crèche in a small Italian village in 1223. He traveled to Greccio, a mountainside town, for the Nativity of the Lord. The town’s hermitage had limited capacity, and St. Francis feared it wouldn’t accommodate all congregants.  

St. Francis asked Pope Honorius III if he could create a Nativity in a nearby cave for the Midnight Mass.   

The crèche is a uniquely Franciscan tradition, says Br. Mike Jones, OFM, pastor of Sacred Heart Church.  

“It was a new, vivid way to celebrate the Nativity and Christmas,” Br. Mike said. “So vivid that we continue the tradition all these years later.”  

In his biography, The Life of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure explains that St. Francis built a manger, with hay, an ox, and an ass to create the display.  

“The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise,” he wrote.   

Actors portrayed Mary and Joseph, and cows and donkeys were part of the Nativity. Accounts are unclear about whether a real baby represented Jesus. By the next Christmas, Greccio residents recreated the Nativity in caves and stables to continue this timeless tradition.  

Sacred Heart, built in 1905, is the first Catholic Church in Tampa and Florida’s west coast. The parish history dates to early pioneer days. 

Photos courtesy of Rob Boelke/Sacred Heart Tampa