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Nativities Across the Globe

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The collection of crèches the University of Dayton (UD) holds is a sight like no other. The university’s Marian Library houses more than 3,600 displays from more than 100 countries.

“The Marian Library was founded by the Society of Mary in 1943 and includes books, archival collections such as photographs and scrapbooks, as well as artwork,” said Sarah Burke Cahalan, an associate professor and the director of the Marian Library, and Jillian Ewalt, an associate professor and the librarian for visual resources at the Marian Library. “All of these materials support research on and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The library includes significant collections documenting popular devotion; the crèche tradition is one of the best-known, international examples of popular devotional practice.”

The crèche collection began in 1994, and in 1997, University members began displaying pieces throughout the Marian Library. In 2007, the collection grew by more than 2,000 pieces when the library received a donation of nativities from the Elisabeth Van Mullekom- Cserep crèche collection in Australia.

“Our collection is really special because it includes examples from around the world, in a huge variety of artistic styles and materials,” explained Cahalan and Ewalt. “It demonstrates the universality of the Christmas story. It is also special because it reflects the Catholic and Marianist identity of the University of Dayton.”

“UD has a diverse and international student body, and not everyone is familiar with Christian traditions or the Christmas story,” Cahalan and Ewalt continued. “The crèche collection is a joyful way of introducing people to that story, which is obviously foundational to Christianity, but is also a beautiful story that anyone can enjoy. The nativity sets show a wide variety of artistic approaches to the same story. Some of them are colorful, even playful, so a gallery full of them can be a very welcoming space.”

Cahalan and Ewalt reported that more than 5,000 visitors are welcomed each year to view the displays at the library. Most years, UD also lends crèches across the campus and broader community, including to area Catholic parishes and high schools. However, because of COVID-19, UD has suspended the lending program and the annual display of crèches.

“Even though the loaning of nativity sets is on hold, several hundred pieces of Marian artwork from the collection are displayed permanently and semi-permanently across the UD campus,” Cahalan and Ewalt said.

Additionally, the Marian Library has re- imagined how they will share the crèches this year.

“One special feature will be the digital exhibit, ‘On Paper: Nativity Imagery from the Marian Library,’” shared Cahalan and Ewalt. “This exhibit will feature images of the birth of Christ from across the Marian Library’s collections, including rare books, holy cards, stamps, paper crèches and more. One highlight of this year’s digital exhibit will be crèches by Czech paper engineer, Vojtěch Kubašta.”

A link to the special digital exhibit will be available on the university’s website in early December. All of UD’s crèches have been cataloged online, and can be found at ecommons.udayton.edu/imri_creches.

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

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