Franciscan Sisters’ Nativity Tradition

Sister JulieAnn Sheahan

December 25, 2023

Christmas 2023 marks the 800th commemoration of St. Francis’ enactment of the Incarnation in the remote fortified village of Greccio, Italy. Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity share our own Nativity tradition.

Greccio, Italy

Three years before his death, St. Francis of Assisi was in Greccio near Christmas time. He was dismayed at the townsfolk’s apathy for the mystery of salvation. Fifteen days before Christmas, Francis called his friend Giovanni and entrusted him with the preparations. “If you desire to celebrate the coming feast of the Lord together at Greccio, hurry before me and carefully make ready the things I tell you. For I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem, to see with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.”

Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Every year about this time someone asks about our Nativity scene. We begin with the history as written by Sr. Teresita Kittell during the winter of 1974: “Our Christmas Crib was made by a wood carver from Germany in the early 1890’s. The man who carved the crib was Mr. John Climicus Falbissoner. The focal point is the Christ Child with Mary and Joseph in a realistic rocky cave, but rising in the background are the towers and domes of Jerusalem ablaze with lights. One can almost hear the “sound of revelry by night” as the colored lights gleam through the darkness. The contrast is strong—the poverty of the Christ Child and the world He came to save. Or if your contemplation leads you that way, you might imagine these lighted towers shining through the night to be a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem which the Infant has recently left and toward which He will lead us all.”

When first completed, this crib was found to be so large that the first two pews on the left side of St. Francis Chapel had to be removed each year and the side door closed to accommodate it.

Eventually the crib was moved to the landing outside St. Francis chapel at the foot of the farther stairway. Sisters remember the trees going “all the way up the stairs!”

Fifteen porcelain angels, all made in Germany, hang from tiny nails located around the entrance to the cave. Each is carrying a heart. Here’s a closeup of one.The  heart  is  a human  heart, not a valentine heart.

Sister Davidica Beschta painted a backdrop of the midnight sky and the stairway was closed off. It made  a most beautiful setting! Here’s the inside of the “cave” before the statues go in.

For many years, this huge complex filled the entire left side of St. Mary’s Chapel. Sometimes ornaments, representing Jesse Tree symbols were hung on the trees flocking the crib. Notice all the Bethlehem city buildings.

Over the years the crib went from “huge” down to “much smaller”—notice less buildings in the present day version.

Sister Teresita Kittell in 1974: “Now, of course, the crib has followed the Community Christmas celebration into St. Mary’s Chapel. Something would be wanting if this crib, so dear to all of us, were not there to tell the story it has told for so many years to so many Sisters.”


Sister Caritas Strodthoff in 2014: “In the last few years the crib has been relocated to the right side of chapel making it easier for Lector and Priest to walk around on left side. Isn’t it beautiful!!”


Article Comments:

Sister Anne Marie Lom 12/25/2023 @ 8:23 am

Thank you for sharing this most precious heritage of our Crib. I don’t grow tired of reading the story as each year it brings different meanings!
Happy 800th anniversary of Greccio’s events! Merry Christmas!


Fr. Placid Stroik, OFM 12/29/2023 @ 9:44 am

Now I have seen the Lord.


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