Life-sized Nativity brings Christmas to life

IRONS — In one small northern Michigan town, the Christmas story is visually told throughout the year with a life-sized wood-carved Nativity scene. At dusk until midnight each night, the scene lights up — offering an illuminating presence in the streets of downtown Irons.

The Nativity is housed in a shrine, lighting up downtown Irons each night. (Pioneer photo/Shanna Avery)

The hand-carved Nativity figurines, which date back to 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.

“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,” is written in the program for the dedication of the Christmas shrine on July 1, 1990.

The Nativity tells the story of Jesus year-round. (Pioneer photo/Shanna Avery)

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Nativity includes figurines depicting Jesus’ birth. (Pioneer photo/Shanna Avery)

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.

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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