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A Franciscan Christmas in Over-The-Rhine

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At age 3, Brother Tim Sucher, OFM, of St. Francis Seraph Church in Cincinnati, and his older brother saved their pennies to buy their first nativity scene – one “just like Granny’s” – to add to their family’s Christmas decorations. Now, decades later, that same nativity scene is part of Brother Sucher’s massive collection of nativity scenes and Christmas decorations that will be on display from Nov. 27 – Jan. 1 at Christian Moerlein Brewery, located at 1621 Moore Street in downtown Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

With a distinctive voice and easy laugh, Brother Sucher personifies all that is the joy of the holidays, but he is quick to give credit where it’s due: his dad. According to Brother Sucher, his father grew up with a “horrible” alcoholic father, and family life became more turbulent at Christmas time.

Determined to create a different experience for his own family, Brother Sucher said his father made sure Christmas was not only special, but spectacular.

“My mother, who worked at a bank, showed him that you could have a Christmas Club [account],” he said. “And so, because he had all this money at Christmas time, he felt like he was a millionaire and kind of went just hog wild.”

In December 1956, with his mother in the hospital, Brother Sucher and his brother spent Christmas with their maternal grandmother. It was her large nativity scene with its 12-inch figures that struck a chord with the young boys.

“I don’t know how much my parents added to [our money], but my mother kept the receipt for that; it was $28,” said Brother Sucher.

Over time, through travels of his own or others, plus donations of nativities and Christmas village pieces, Brother Sucher has amassed a collection so large it takes a crew of volunteers more than six weeks to unpack and set up. He estimates he has 60 nativities from around the world. One of the most prominent ones was created by Fontanini, an Italian company that has been making nativities for more than 110 years. The set contains 75 pieces.

“Everybody in Bethlehem is there, along with buildings and fruit stands and the kings’ tents and all that,” he explained. “It has its own nook because it takes up a lot of space, but it is pretty awesome. This is the type of set you don’t buy all at one time. Every year they come out with different pieces, so, over many years, you keep adding to the scene.”

Another must-see, according to Brother Sucher, is the Lladrò set. The company, based in Spain, makes pricey porcelain pieces that are collectors’ items.

Also on display will be a collection of Santa Clauses, train sets and a replica of a living room, complete with a fireplace, Christmas tree and seating for weary guests.

“We [also] have, what I say, it’s not a village anymore, it’s not a city, it’s a Dickens’ Greater Metropolitan Area,” joked Brother Sucher. “Since we’ve been at Moerlein [Brewery], people have said, ‘Oh, we have that same Dickens’ Village and we’re not going to use it anymore, would you like the pieces that I have?’ So it’s become bigger, not because of my going out and buying things, but because
of people donating to the collection.”

Brother Sucher pointed out that there is a “Franciscan aspect” to this event. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 in a cave, featuring straw and live animals, in order to “bring people around to the incarnation.”

“For St. Francis of Assissi, the incarnation was at the heart of his faith; the fact that God became a human being was central to him,” he explained.

“My mother said to me one time, ‘You know, what’s interesting about this is how everybody looks at this a little bit differently, yet it’s the same story.’ ”

If the collection of crèches and Christmas villages don’t get you in the Christmas spirit, then how about a manger scene with live animals, located in the courtyard of St. Francis Seraph Church on Liberty Street? The tableau will be on display from Nov. 27 through Jan. 6 with life-sized figurines along with two donkeys, four goats and four sheep, including Noel, who made his debut last year.

“A sheep gave birth on a Sunday afternoon,” said Brother Sucher. “There were people there at the scene, and when she [the ewe] finally dropped him, everybody applauded!”

Creating joy for others is at the heart of this labor of love for Brother Sucher. He sees it as a way to build relationships with others “because that’s what God did with us.”

“He entered into a relationship with us by becoming one of us,” he said. “So I think, as followers of Jesus, we have to do the same thing. We need to enter into relationships with people. Not bang them over the head, not judge them, not convert them, necessarily, but we need to be in relationships with people. And you don’t do that behind four walls.”

This article appeared in the December 2020 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.


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