Norway church to display international Nativity sets

(Terri Castelaz/Daily News photos) Grace United Methodist Church, which shares its church home with Bethany Lutheran Church at 130 Odill Dr. in Norway, is working to permanently display its collection of Nativity sets. The Rev. Irene White and church volunteer Jan Johnson looks at some of the unique Nativities donated by Bill and Susanne Gay in 2003. Also shown is a 15-piece set clustered around a coconut shell hut purchased in Haiti.

NORWAY — Nativity scenes are a common sight during the holidays — as they symbolize the reason for the celebration. These sets of figures, depicting Jesus, Mary and Joseph, can be found in all shapes, sizes and materials.

Grace United Methodist Church of Norway is now working to permanently display its unique collection of more than 120 Nativity sets that were gifted to them in 2003 by Bill and Susanne Gay, who summer at their cottage on Hamilton Lakes.

The retired language teachers found themselves combining their love of Christmas, travel and ethnic traditions by acquiring Nativity sets from all around the world. When that number grew to more than 500, the couple realized they needed to find a home for their collection.

The Gays made their first donation to Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Menomonee Falls, Wis. The church now has more than 900 Nativities from 65 different countries on permanent display.

“Visitors come year round to see the Nativities (at Holy Cross) and learn the background of each one,” said Grace United volunteer Jan Johnson.

Pieces for the Norway collection come from all over the world and were specifically selected by the Gays. “Many of them have a connection to the U.P.,” said Bill Gay. “Something about each piece represents the U.P., whether it was the artist, material or purchased locally.”

Felt Nativity figure ornaments made by Bill Gay­– and placed on a wreath made of wild grapevine from their cottage — also made the list.

Some of his favorite international sets selected include one from Haiti — purchased after they heard a missionary from Haiti speak at Grace — a 15-piece set clustered around a coconut shell hut; a framed batik, a Christmas gift from Buddhist friends in Sri Lanka during a visit with them there; and a lighted Swibbogen (wooden German arch) from a part of Germany where mining has long been prevalent.

“This piece from Germany was especially appropriate because of Norway’s mining past,” said Bill Gay.

The Gays are unsure when the collection started, but Bill does remember the first Nativity set he purchased was when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. It happened to be from Woolworth’s and cost $16.

The largest set given to Grace United Methodist was one from Mexico that was made of used auto parts with a sparkplug as Jesus.

“A fold-out Nativity is another quite unique piece,” said Johnson.

Rev. Irene White said the church has been unable to properly display all the pieces at one time.

She explained that when the Crossroads Alliance, a joint venture between Bethany Evangelical Lutheran and Grace United Methodist Churches, began construction of the new facility, they had originally planned to have another sanctuary that would have included a large entrance to each separate space.

“We hoped to have beautiful cabinetry built similar to the Menominee Falls church, to be able house the collection,” said White, pastor of Grace United Methodist. “Unfortunately the build didn’t happen.”

“It is sad and it has bothered me that they have been hidden in boxes,” she adds. “We want to share these beautiful pieces.”

This year, White and Johnson revisited the idea of how to display pieces of the collection for the community to enjoy year-round.

Johnson, along with the help of her sister, Dianne Rostagno, worked to change the choir room into a temporary display room for more than 50 of the Nativities.

White credits them for their commitment to getting the project going. “It’s a lot of work,” she said.

The display includes cards to explain the origin of the Nativities.

Without the addition to the facility, the Nativity sets will be located in several areas of the church including book shelves and several areas of the hallways. “We may place some in the cabinet around the fountain as well,” added White.

Prior to being moved, church member Kathy Groeneveld will photograph each piece along with the tag. “We want to put together a reference book so the public can find the story behind each one of them,” said Johnson.

“Our goal is now to not have to pack these wonderful pieces up again,” stressed White.

The Gays continue to add Nativities to their collection, however, they are much more selective. “It’s radically different now — only buying two to four a year,” said Bill Gay. “It needs to be special in some way.”

The Gays have already informed the church they will be making another donation next summer when they return to the lake cottage.

“It’s exciting, and we look forward to seeing the additions,” said Johnson.

Terri Castelaz can be reached at 906-774-2772 ext. 241, or tcastelaz@ironmountaindailynews.com


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