Octogenarian Nebraskan Crafts Crèches: ‘Expressing His Faith Through His Hands’

Why Paul O’Connor handcarves Nativity scenes

Paul O’Connor enjoys crafting Nativity scenes.
Paul O’Connor enjoys crafting Nativity scenes. (photo: EWTN News In Depth)

In a small farmhouse near Homer, Nebraska, not far from where the states of Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa meet, lives 89-year-old artisan Paul O’Connor, who has become a bit of a local celebrity in the Catholic community for ink drawings and wood carvings, especially his handcrafted Nativity scenes.  

He works three to four hours daily on his Christmas figurines in a corner of his basement, not motivated by monetary gain but solely by the love of God, according to friend Katie Tighe, who told the Register: “It’s his way of expressing his faith through his hands.”

O’Connor grew up in Homer as part of a historic family that settled the region in the 19th century.  

In fact, his great-grandfather, Cornelius O’Connor, was an Irish immigrant who built Homer’s O’Connor House, a two-story brick house completed in 1875 that is a museum today. O’Connor attended public school, one of only a few Catholics in his class; his mother was a convert to the Catholic faith. His family was a founding member of St. Cornelius Church in Homer, a church built at the request of the O’Connor family, according to pastor Father Mark Beran.

O’Connor served in the U.S. Army, 1955-58, stationed in Germany in the years after World War II. When he returned home, he worked as a farmer, growing corn, soy beans and alfalfa. He also worked a decade as a welder before retiring. 

The lifelong bachelor always had an artistic bent and began watercolor painting as a hobby. He then thought he would try his hand at wood carving. So he bought some books on the topic and has since been self-taught. He whittled a wide range of images initially, but in recent years, he has focused on Nativity scenes, with an occasional Christmas ornament thrown in.  

He follows four basic patterns for his Nativity sets, some painted, some not, and first went public with his art by attending craft fairs.

Katie and her husband met the artist at St. Cornelius. They bought a Nativity set from him for a modest $70 in 2011, a rate that has remained largely unchanged since. Her family subsequently won a second one in a church raffle.  

“They’re both beautiful and each unique and catch the eye of visitors to our home,” she said. “But good luck getting one! He only makes three or four sets annually, and in recent years, he has had a long waiting list of people who want one.”

Father Beran is the proud owner of two of O’Connor’s ink drawings, including one of the Sacred Heart. The humble artist has gone from obscurity to being in demand, the pastor told the Register, as “word has gotten around” about the Nativity sets. “I had a lady contact me just this morning to ask if she could be added to his waiting list.”

Paul O’Connor Nativity scenes
A sampling of the Nativity scenes Paul O’Connor has handcrafted(Photo: Courtesy photos)

Besides being a gifted artist, O’Connor is also a devout Catholic, Father Beran said, “a quiet, humble, prayerful man of the type that is the backbone of any parish community.”

The rural community around Homer has undergone a shake-up in recent months, he added, as a priest shortage in the Archdiocese of Omaha has ended weekend Masses at St. Cornelius, necessitating O’Connor and his fellow parishioners to attend Sunday Mass at St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, Nebraska.  

The historic mission, founded by St. Katharine Drexel in 1909 to serve the Native population in the region, is one of 11 faith communities the priest covers in the archdiocese (including St. Cornelius).  

“Paul and many of our other longtime parishioners have accepted this with patience and resignation,” Father Beran explained.

Deb Greene has two Nativity scenes created by the hometown artist.  

In an interview with EWTN News In Depth correspondent Alan Holdren, she noted that when it comes to his art, “The first thing that comes to my mind is the talent, but it also is the thought of his ability to see beyond just carving. He sees what it actually should mean to all of us. He puts so much time and effort into these. He had no pattern to follow. He did it all on his own.”

As Christmas approaches each year, she continued, “You think about why we celebrate Christmas. We don’t celebrate it for the gifts. We celebrate it for the birth of Jesus Christ.” 

Unfortunately for those interested in obtaining one of O’Connor’s Nativity sets, he is not taking new orders, as, he told the Register, “I’ve got enough requests from the local community to keep me busy for a long time.”

His hobby is a blessing, he said.

“I began by carving a wide variety of things, and now I almost exclusively carve Nativity scenes, plus an occasional Christmas ornament, as it is my way of sharing this part of the story of the life of Christ.”