Hand-carved nativity keeps Christmas spirit alive year-round

A close-up look at the carvings depicting Joseph, Mary and Jesus. (Courtesy photo)

IRONS — The spirit of Christmas resides all year round in Irons, with a life-sized Nativity scene lit up each night — telling a visual story of Christ’s birth.

The carved wood Nativity figurines, which date back as early as 1950, are housed in the St. Bernard Christmas Shrine next to St. Bernard Catholic Church. The St. Bernard Altar Society bought the Nativity for $1,000 in 1959 from Manistee woodcarver Albert Buerger and put it on display in the church each holiday season. In 1989, as a retirement project, Monsignor Walter F. Jude, with the help of his parish, built a Christmas shrine to permanently display the Nativity all year round.

Written in the program for the dedication of the Christmas shrine on July 1, 1990:

“The shrine is lit at night during the entire year. May Christianity born at Bethlehem ever shine more brightly in the lives of all who view this shrine.”

The Rev. Dennis O’Donnell, who has served as priest for St. Bernard’s from 2003 to the present, is honored to have the Nativity on permanent display.

“It is quite a privilege to have the Christmas shrine in Irons all year round,” he said. “Msgr. Walter Jude, who is a personal hero of mine, did a lot to make sure the Nativity was permanently displayed by taking on the Christmas shrine as his retirement project. It is really his work. A lot of parishioners were very fond of him, and he lived here all of his life except the years he served in a different diocese. A young man who was earning his Eagle Scout badge helped put a monument stone in place with a plaque on it to commemorate the Christmas shrine.”

Buerger was a native of Dusseldorf, Germany, who came to the U.S. around 1927. After spending 22 years in Chicago as a woodcarver and cabinet maker, he moved to Manistee in 1945, and began his own business, the Wayne Mill and Cabinet Works, specializing in religious figures and church furniture, particularly church pews, which can still be found in many West Michigan churches, according to the Manistee County Historical Museum.

During Christmas of 1950, he displayed in the front yard of his business the original part of the Nativity scene, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, which he carved out of mahogany. The faces, hands and feet are painted in the style of Spanish/Indian art from the Southwest U.S.

Each year, he would add several newly carved pieces to the scene, until the display required 700 square feet of space and included more than 80 sheep, three kings, three camels, two sheepdogs, six shepherds, an angel and his original carvings of the holy family. He made a backdrop which featured the village of Bethlehem, with a Mediterranean landscape including palm trees.

Buerger eventually won five Christmas display contests, and he quit entering the contest so others could win. His display was so popular, he had large colored postcards made of the exhibit, which he handed to visitors who came to view the scene.

His Nativity was said to be the largest and most extensive Christmas manger scene ever displayed in the Manistee area, and his business thrived after people began visiting his exhibit.

“It is a simple case of bread cast upon the waters returning after many days,” he told a reporter from the Grand Rapids Press in 1959.

Desiring to have the figures on permanent display, he sold them to the St. Bernard Altar Society for $1,000 in 1959. The colorful authentic garments were tailored for each figure by members of the Altar Society.

Originally displayed each Christmas season at the church, the effort led by Msgr. Jude in 1989 created a 32 feet by 40 feet building, designed by Richard Drury, of Traverse City, to house the Nativity figures.

All of the labor and construction was donated by parishioners, with Boy Scout Troop No. 61 helping with the finishing touches of a stone monument and plaque. An effort was made to keep the interior authentic and simple. Some of the hand-hewn beams used in construction were more than 100 years old.

Parish members compiled a memory book in 2014 of the history and building of the shrine. A special memory  submitted by Pat Gries told about visits with her grandchildren to the shrine:

“During Thanksgiving, our grandchildren would always want to walk over to the Christmas Shrine after Mass to enjoy the beautiful Nativity scene and to count the number of lambs in the shrine. Upon their following visit at Christmas, after counting them again, they were certain the number of lambs had changed. Despite the weather often being cold and windy, we always had to recount them several times until we all agreed on the number. When the grandchildren would visit at Easter we would count the lambs again.

They were convinced the lambs were coming and going. At one point, their grandfather entered the shrine, out of their sight through the back door, to repair the king’s broken arm. The grandchildren were shocked to see their grandpa become part of the shrine.”

The dedication article from 1990 sums up the presence of the St. Bernard’s Christmas Shrine in Irons.

“Though silent and unable to speak, these wooden carvings echo the words of the angels on that first Christmas to all who pass by, ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people of good will.’”

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