Manchester priest's crèches find a home in Enfield
By MEGHAN PIERCE Union Leader Correspondent
A carved, wood-stained nativity set from Germany is part of the new International Nativity Sets Display at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Enfield. It is among more than 450 sets donated by the Rev. Msgr. Charles DesRuisseaux, a retired priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester. (Courtesy)
ENFIELD — This summer, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette opened a permanent exhibit of more than 450 nativity sets from more than 50 countries.
"We're wondering if it isn't the largest collection in New England, 450 is a good number," said Shrine Director Fr. René J. Butler.
The entire collection was donated to the shrine by the Rev. Msgr. Charles DesRuisseaux, a retired priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, who lives in Manchester.
He started the collection in 1973 when his aunt made him a nativity set using unique materials such as old spools from Manchester's Amoskeag Mill as well as egg shells.
Then in 1980 while on a trip to Acapulco, Mexico, he was charmed by the Mexican interpretation of the crèche with St. Joseph wearing a sombrero and bought the nativity.
"I love to travel so I've been to many places all over the world, Africa and Asia and Europe and Latin America," he said, of the places he bought nativity sets. "I'd have to have at least 15 or 20 news ones each year. I'd always have to buy a suitcase to bring all my nativities home."
On his travels, he always marveled at how the nativity was interpreted by each culture. If it was Peru, there were llamas. If it was Quebec, there were beavers and moose. Some are set in the snow, some on sandy tropical beaches.
"The nativity is transformed and transported into the scenery," he said.
"I'm a priest so I see the spiritual side of it. God became one of us. But I think it's nice people see him in their own skin and their own part of the world."
He has pieces made of clothespins from Appalachia country and a Kenyan set made of recycled tin cans, as well as Waterford Crystal from Ireland and stone sets made in France.
"It's a nice opportunity for parents to tell their children the Christmas story. And it shows that people everywhere have great talents and use their gifts to display what they believe."
DesRuisseaux was also driven by the public's interest in his collection. In the early 1990s, the diocese opened a museum that displayed his collection year round.
When the museum was permanently closed, DesRuisseaux asked the shrine if it would like to display the collection. That was about 10 years ago, DesRuisseaux said.
At first, the shrine declined, not knowing how or where it would display the collection.
Over the past decade, the collection has lived on shelves and in boxes in DesRuisseaux's condo and at times all or just part was lent to other venues for display such as the Manchester Credit Union Museum and the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn.
The Knights of Columbus had offered to take over the collection, DesRuisseaux said, but "I'm from New Hampshire, and I'd like to leave them in New Hampshire."
This year during the shrine's annual staff review of its Christmas light display, "somebody said, whatever happened to that collection of nativity sets," Butler said, and the staff worked to find a solution so the nativity sets could be displayed.
When the Shrine called DesRuisseaux this March asking him if his offer was still good, he said his prayers were answered.
"I'm 78 now, and I will be 79 soon," he said, adding that he is happy his collection has found a permanent home in his native state.
The shrine decided to remove the pews from its seldom used A-frame chapel and set up shelving for the display.
"It was a project just getting things out of the boxes and onto the shelves and catalogued," Butler said. "It was a real team effort."
A private estate made a donation to pay for the lighting of the display, and the exhibit opened to a small crowd on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
"One of the very first people that was in there said, 'what a feast for the eyes,'" Butler said.
The diversity of sizes, materials and cultural interpretations of the crèche scene is "absolutely incredible," Butler said.
A Kenyan set has the figures dressed in the traditional orange robes of the Maasai tribe.
Some sets are all one piece, encompassing Jesus, Mary and Joseph like the Native American Huron tribe wooden sculpture that depicts the flight into Egypt with the Holy Family in a canoe and Joseph in full feather headdress.
Materials range in variety from porcelain to corn husk, crystal to seed pods, clothespins to bottle brushes, Butler said. "It just goes on and on.
There's a whole set that is crocheted. There's burlap. Everywhere you look, you think, 'Who would have thunk?'"
Since the diocese museum closed about 10 years ago, DesRuisseaux has stopped collecting nativity sets because he didn't have any more room in his condo. Now that the collection has gone to La Sallette, he said he will entertain the idea of adding to it again.
"Maybe, if I see something that they could have, and have room, I might be tempted. It's become a hobby and a passion," he said.
The exhibit is free and open to the public, though donations are accepted.
La Salette Shrine is located at 410 N.H. Route 4A in Enfield.
The exhibit will be open daily in the summer from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from June through September. During the Christmas season, the display will be open in the evenings to coincide with the Christmas light display hours. For the remainder of the year, the display will be available by appointment only, Butler said.