Creche crush: D.C. couple has collection of 500 Nativity scenes

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — For Roger and Marguerite Sullivan of Washington, Christmas really is
the most wonderful time of the year.

to their travels throughout the world over the past 40 years — he for the
World Bank, she for the State Department — the Catholic couple has collected
at least 500 Nativity scenes.

December, they spend a few days unpacking about 100 or so of the creches for
display around their home.

year, though, about 150 of their Nativity scenes are on exhibit at the
Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington. The Sullivans had been friends of the Franciscans
there for many years, but it wasn’t until last year, when the Sullivans told
them, that the Franciscans knew of the extent of their collection.

exhibit, on display through Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, is already
drawing more people to the monastery, said Franciscan Father Greg Friedman, who
was tasked with curating the exhibit.

started the week before Thanksgiving” arranging the creches, Father Friedman
told Catholic News Service. “We worked over Thanksgiving weekend, and into the
week after that. We put in some very long days.” He also crafted a slide show
featuring nearly half of the creches in the exhibit.

couple sees their collection as one expression of their Catholic faith. “I
think it’s a wonderful way to show our Catholic faith, and to be one with
Catholics around the world,” Roger Sullivan said.

Sullivans look for Nativity scenes that reflect the culture of the people who
live in the countries they visit. “We don’t have any ‘Made in China’ scenes,”
Marguerite Sullivan said.

creches chosen for the exhibit show not only the breadth and variety of the
Sullivans’ collection, but also the skill of the artisans who assembled them.
One creche from Slovakia seems to be made entirely from wire. One from Albania is
formed out of cast iron. Another from the Philippines was made from rolled-up

toughest Nativity scene to procure, according to Roger, was a heavy but not
unduly tall creche from Lithuania. “We had to buy a new suitcase to take it
home in, and we had to buy new air tickets for the flight home,” he said.

In this
respect, size does matter. Many of their Nativity scenes are small, and some
are downright miniature. The smallest, said Father Friedman, comes from San
Marino, a 24-square-mile republic surrounded entirely by Italy. Tellingly, the
creche fits inside a spoon.

whole thing started when Roger went to Bolivia on a work assignment, saw a
Nativity scene he liked and brought it home. Soon afterward, he went to Peru
and picked up another creche. Thus was a tradition begun.

are great places to find Nativity scenes to buy. “If they don’t have them, they
know where to go get them,” Marguerite told CNS. The artisans who make these
creches — save for those on a street in Florence, Italy, where individual
pieces can sell for thousands of dollars — aren’t making a bundle making and
selling Nativity scenes. “Often, they’re quite poor,” she added.

500 or so creches in their collection, most countries with a Christian
population are represented. Roger Sullivan has visited 105 countries in his
travels; Marguerite has been to 110. Friends who have seen their December
displays have given them Nativity scenes to add to the collection. “We’ve
bought a few online,” Marguerite noted, as their travels have slowed somewhat
in their retirement — although they’ve already got an international itinerary
through the first half of 2018.

place they’ve never collected a creche from? “Believe it or not, the Vatican,”
Marguerite said.

Sullivans also have some distinctive Nativity scenes from the United States.
There’s one from Alaska showing Eskimos, one showing Pueblo Indians from Colorado,
a straw-hut rendering from Hawaii, a scene from South Carolina made of finger
puppets, and a Cape Cod creche with a maritime theme: Mary as a mermaid, and
the Wise Men as sea creatures, including an octopus.

The most
controversial, by the Sullivans’ own admission, is a modern-day telling of
Jesus’ birth, with Joseph wearing his hair in a “man bun” and taking a selfie and Mary — with her blouse off one shoulder — and the Christ Child in
the manger. The magi, instead of riding camels, are all on Segways and carrying
gifts in boxes.

people say it’s controversial, but we have to think of what the Christmas story
would be like if it happened in our day and time,” Roger said.

– – –

Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

– – –

Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article