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Father Herberger hopes for permanent home for growing Nativity collection

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There was once an advertising campaign for a popular snack chip which convinced viewers that “you can’t eat just one.”

Father Roy Herberger displays his vast Nativity creche collection at Fatima Hall at the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Lewiston. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

In the case of Father Roy Herberger, he couldn’t have just one Nativity scene.

Nearly 50 years after purchasing a set that grabbed his attention, he has acquired hundreds more. He estimates his collection current stands at around 670 sets from about 60 countries worldwide.

Most of them are on display at two locations during Advent and Christmas, at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in the Town of Lewiston, and at Our Lady of Victory Basilica and Shrine in Lackawanna.

“We still have 100-plus in storage that we don’t have any room for,” said Father Herberger, while welcoming the WNY Catholic team to Fatima Hall, located near the gift shop and cafeteria on the Fatima Shrine grounds.

The Nativity scene is perhaps the most Christian of images celebrating Christmas and the Christmas season. The displays in Lewiston and Lackawanna offer a wide range of styles, from traditional to exotic.

Father Herberger’s first set was purchased while attending a religious education conference in Baltimore. He found the set, made in Africa, at an import-export dealership.

“It was hand carved out of ebony. It was so African, the features, the colors, everything else,” he said. “I’m used to European type of artists, painters, depicting the life of Christ, but Christ came for all people, all cultures, all parts of the world.”

Numerous pieces within the collection reflect a vision of how Jesus and the Holy Family might look like if He had arrived in a different period of time, in a different part of the world.

Many of the sets come from traditionally Christian nations, but a few in the collection come from parts of the world including China and Japan. Herberger pointed to a more recently acquired set made in Mongolia.

“It helps us remember again, the universality – not even countries necessarily identified with the history of Christianity, but there are pockets here and there, of how the Gospel has been spread throughout the world,” he said.

The materials are just as diverse as the origins and styles. They may range from porcelain, to paper, to bottle caps, to small auto parts. The collection also includes some contemporary themes or brands. There’s a Precious Moments set, a Fisher Price Little People set, one based on Star Wars characters and one made of Lego pieces.

From the traditional to the abstract, Father Roy Herberger’s nativity sets span artistic styles and come from 60 countries. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

Some sets feature pieces all represented by animals.

“I base this on the fact that in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel, the third chapter, it says that all Creation give praise to God, you birds of the air, all the dolphins and fish of the sea. All you animals, wild and tame, give praise to God,” Father Herberger said. “Because they were created by God and their very existence in Creation that God gave us, you know, should give glory and praise. Nobody’s trying to say from a religious standpoint that the Holy Family looked like those, but it just reminds us that even nature, even creation, even animals, birds, et cetera, are important. When Christ came into the world, in that incarnation, it brought humanity and divinity even closer and closer.”

Perhaps the oddest set in the collection may be found at the Fatima Shrine exhibit, a “hipster” Nativity scene. It features a more modern Holy Family. As the Christ Child rests, Joseph takes a selfie of the family while Mary holds her coffee. The Magi arrive riding on Segways, bearing gifts packaged in Amazon boxes. The nearby cow is stamped “100 percent organic,” while the sheep eats from feed that is identified as “gluten free.”

Father Herberger was asked about whether some of the sets may raise concerns about taste and appropriateness.

“Very honestly, I’ve had some people say, ‘Oh, how disgusting to have that.’ And I’ve said listen, even the bishop a number of years ago came when I was at SS. Columba-Brigid, and he saw it, and he had a smile,” he replied. “He said ‘I just can’t believe it.’ But (then) he said, ‘You know what, if maybe Christ came in this day and age … who knows what it would look like? Who knows what would have gone on?’ You know, He was born in a different time, a different place. Who’s to say that it couldn’t have been somehow different, in a different time and location?”

The displays will continue through early January at both sites (click here for more information including the viewing schedule at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine and here for more information on the display at Our Lady of Victory).   

What Father Herberger has dreamed of for years is to find a space located between Lewiston and Lackawanna where he may create a year-round home for his display. He names his project the St. Francis Nativity Museum, recognizing that St. Francis is credited with creating the first live Nativity display.

There are the practical reasons for wanting a full-time home. For one thing, it gets tricky packing and moving the fragile sets year after year. But a permanent site, as Father Herberger sees it, would also serve as another destination for pilgrims traveling into Western New York to see Our Lady of Fatima Shrine and Our Lady of Victory.

He also sees an opportunity for education.

“We want to earmark any school, from kindergarten to graduate work, public, private, parochial, and say, why don’t you have a field day?” Herberger said. “Let the children come see these not from a religious standpoint, but art and culture. And then we would have a separate space where you would have like a laptop, crayons, paints, charcoal, whatever. And they’d say ‘now, why don’t you go to work and see what you can come up with? How would you like to express, after what you see what other people have done with clay and paper and stone and glass? Why don’t you see what you can do?’ It can be a creative experience for the children as well.”

It’s an enormous challenge to identify the space, acquire it, and then maintain it. But it’s a dream that Father Herberger still keeps close to his heart.

“It’s not just a dream, but a necessity before I die,” he said.

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