A Visit to Ohio’s Nativity of the Lord Jesus Church
A little treasure nestles beneath Nativity of the Lord Jesus Catholic Church in Akron, Ohio: a replica of Christ’s birthplace as it appears in Bethlehem today.
“Visiting the Holy Land is a way of getting in touch with the environment God chose to reveal himself to us,” said Father David Halaiko, the parish’s pastor. “These special places help us understand God’s actions.”
For Catholics unable to travel to Bethlehem, the next best thing might be a trip to the Akron church and its museum of Nativity sets. Recognizing its exceptional opportunity to evangelize, the parish conducts free tours throughout the year and provides a brochure for self-guided ones.
“Christmas has an appeal across faiths, even among atheists,” said Kathleen Conrad, tour coordinator. “Christmas will bring them in and let us teach about our faith.”
The Bethlehem Chapel
Mass is celebrated twice a week in the Bethlehem Chapel. Built in 1992 on the building’s lower level, it recreates the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The chapel measures half the length of the church in the Holy Land, but its other dimensions conform to the original one.
Volunteer craftsmen experienced in replica work reproduced the original church’s irregular walls. Low doors acknowledge the need for early Christian churches to discourage marauders on horseback.
The Altar of the Nativity dominates a curved apse. Above the altar, a small icon depicts the Nativity scene according to Eastern tradition. A star in the floor beneath the altar marks Jesus’ birthplace with a Latin inscription that translates, “Here, Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
A precious artifact rests in the center of the star: Father Halaiko received permission to place in it a stone from Bethlehem’s Cave Church at Shepherds’ Field, where angels first announced Christ’s birth.
To the right stands the Altar of the Magi, adorned with a painting by parishioner Carol Keith of the Wise Men worshipping the Christ Child.
Nearby, a statue of the Infant Jesus occupies a feeding trough carved into the stone wall, replicating the manger.
Outside, chapel visitors encounter dozens of crèches from around the world in a well-organized museum. The collection numbers about 500 Nativity scenes, half of which the parish can exhibit at a given time in tall glass cases. A single collector donated 200 Nativity sets to the parish, and many others are from Father Halaiko’s collection.
The pastor said he cherishes the ceramic crèche made by a late friend who suffered from multiple sclerosis. For her part, Conrad is partial to a scene fashioned of marbles by Brazilian children.
In one multiple-piece set, all of the figures wear Amish clothing. In another, the people are dressed as American Indians. Representations of Christ’s birth appear in snow globes and on wind chimes, music boxes, candelabra and in an elaborate castle constructed of foil and cardboard.
Several of the manger scenes feature a little brown dog, a deceased but beloved member of the parish family. Long ago, someone abandoned a half-grown mongrel in the church parking lot. Father Halaiko named him “Lucky” and gave him a home for the next 15 years.
Because the breadth of the display can overwhelm young visitors, Conrad devised a scavenger hunt. (It’s fun for grown-ups, too!) Participants realize the universality of the Christmas story when they locate Nativity scenes from El Salvador, Vietnam, Tanzania and 20 other countries. Children also search for sets composed of wax, cornhusks, crystal and other materials. They find the Baby Jesus resting on a coconut, on a pottery jar and even inside a matchbox.
“It shows how different cultures represent this event and how you can express your faith through art,” Conrad said.
The parish expands its education initiative during Advent by opening its “Bethlehem Marketplace” on designated days.
“Scripture deals a lot with how people lived their lives back then,” Conrad explained.
In market stalls, volunteers garbed in biblical fashion lead children in grinding herbs, making little oil lamps with clay and other activities relating to the time of Christ.
Inside the church itself, formal and self-guided tours describe the significance of holy water, priest’s vestments and other articles essential to Catholic churches.
In keeping with Christ’s humble birthplace, the building follows a simple, barn-like design. Vibrant stained-glass windows by Marchione Studios of Canton, Ohio, relate the Christmas story, beginning with Isaiah’s foretelling of peace in creation (Isaiah 11:1-9) at the arrival of the Messiah and concluding with the Holy Family settled in Nazareth.
Faceted glass set in cement offers a striking “Star of Bethlehem” window designed by White and Associates of Canton, Ohio. Rays representing the Light of Christ shoot from the center of the star, while circular bands ripple outward to symbolize the church’s missionary role.
Rather than presenting a sculpted corpus, the crucifix is painted in the medieval style similar to the crucifix in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
In recognition of Christ’s enduring message, a low pedestal holds a charred piece of concrete near the front of the church. A first responder who volunteered at Ground Zero donated the rubble from the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Twin Towers in New York City.
As Father Halaiko said, “It is a reminder to pray for peace.”
Jerri Donohue writes from Brecksville, Ohio.
The Church of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus
2425 Myersville Road
Akron, OH 44312