PROVIDENCE — For almost 20 years Dominican Father Matthew D. Powell has generously offered a beautiful Christmas gift to the community.
Every December, the well-known priest and educator shares part of his impressive collection of nativities in a display presented at Providence College, where he serves as an associate professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance and Film
Currently on display in “Christmas in Cardboard: The Art of the Paper Creche” are dozens of pop-up nativity books and cardboard creches, representing 13 countries and dating from around 1910 to the present era.
Father Powell recalled that his interest in nativities began when he was a small boy growing up in Springfield, Ohio. He maintained that despite his Anglicized last name, he is of Italian ancestry.
“The crib is important to Italian families,” he noted, adding that as a child, his family’s creche was filled with “little plastic figures from Woolworth’s.” Other happy childhood Christmas memories include visiting the crib in his parish church with his family to offer prayers, and receiving paper creches from the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati when he was in elementary school.
Father Powell added that his interest in nativities grew as he pursued theological studies during the 1970s — a period when the importance of sacramental such as crucifixes, pictures, statues and medals was de-emphasized.
The priest said he quickly came to realize that “this was a wrong turn. It’s the power of the symbol.
“Properly used sacramentals can be powerful ‘silent sermons,’’’ Father Powell wrote in the catalog for an exhibition presented two years ago at the Knight of Columbus Museum in New Haven.
“Like the cross, the creche is far more than a decoration,” he continued. “It is a visual remembrance of the birth of Jesus, the first manifestation of the Incarnation (that God became a man) to human eyes. A few simple figures and a miniature stable preach a mute sermon about the wonder of that birth in Bethlehem.
“The creche proclaims that God fulfilled the promise of the Messiah he made to the prophets of ancient Israel, that he so loved the world he sent his only begotten Son and that he chose poor people and poor circumstances to receive his Son,” Father Powell wrote.
“The creche declares that not only have we been created in the image and likeness of God, but that God himself became one with us and dwelt among us. The Savior himself is our brother and therefore we and our entire human race have supreme dignity. The creche reminds us that we are called to live in harmony, love, peace and simplicity.”
Father Powell admitted that since his creche collection has presented a “tremendous storage problem,” most recent additions have been made out of cardboard.
“All fold up flat,” he said, smiling. The priest noted that many of his nativities have been donated to St. Jude’s Shrine, Chicago.
Father Powell noted that three-dimensional paper nativity scenes originated in Germany and Austria during the 1800s, and were bought by those less fortunate who could not afford expensive hand carved figurines. The perfection of color printing made color nativities easy to produce, and during Advent, street peddlers often went door to door selling sheets of nativity figures. Those printed in color were more expensive, while figures printed in black and white needed to be hand colored, a task that was usually left to the children in the family.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries printing nativities became a profitable industry in Germany and Austria. However, the development of mass-produced molded nativity figurines in more recent times has made the production of paper less popular.
Father Powell adds to his collection with purchases he makes on E-Bay in this country and in Europe.
The priest is the author of “The Christmas Creche — Treasures of Faith, Art and Theater,” published by Pauline Press in 1997. Father Powell recalled that when he was searching for a book about nativities in the mid-90s and could only find one printed almost 40 years earlier, his friends suggested that he write a book.
After the priest researched the artistic, historical and theological aspects of the creche, he realized that he’d written a book. While several publishers initially rejected the manuscript out of fear that a seasonal book wouldn’t attract a large readership, the Sisters of St. Paul agreed to publish the beautifully-designed, well-illustrated book.
Father Powell recalled the thrill of once seeing his work in bookstore in Rome, and noted that it is the only book published by Pauline Press to be sold in the Barnes and Noble chain. The book is available at www.pauline.org or from Amazon.
“Christmas in Cardboard: The Art of the Paper Creche” will be presented in the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies on the Providence College campus until December 20, and again from January 7-11. Hours are Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Special weekend hours are December 15-16, 1-5 p.m.
For more information, call 865-1000.