Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bird Island priest's Italian Nativity scene grows into a biblical metropolis

Each figure in the Rev. George Schmit’s Fontanini Nativity set stands only 5 inches tall, but his entire collection is no little town of Bethlehem.

His Fontanini Nativity set collection began as a simple creche handed down to the Bird Island priest of St. Mary’s Catholic Church nearly 20 years ago from a parishioner at his former parish in New Ulm, Minn.

Today, Schmit’s set has grown into a miniature biblical metropolis on display in his basement, complete with hundreds of figurines, structures, flora and fauna.

Fontanini Nativity sets have graced mantels in homes for more than 100 years. Handcrafted in Italy, Nativity scenes from the family-owned Fontanini Co. are internationally recognized. Each of the hundreds of figurines in the collection contains a name and a historically accurate story, included inside each collector box. Today, there are more than 600 pieces in the Fontanini set.

Schmit is well on his way to acquiring the entire collection, though the miniature world of Fontanini was unknown to Schmit until he discovered several more pieces to the collection tucked away at a gift shop in St. Cloud.

“I wasn’t aware that an entire village existed beyond my Nativity scene,” Schmit said.

Schmit purchased the marked-down pieces to the collection at the gift shop after Christmas. His Nativity grew that day to include a poultry shop, bakery, pottery shop and an inn. Schmit’s passion was ignited with this first purchase of collectible pieces.

“I figured since I’m buying these, I’m buying every darn piece,” Schmit said.

And he wasn’t kidding. Schmit’s collection expanded with each purchase of the hand-painted figurines.

Nearly 112 figurines and more than 23 structures later, the Fontanini collection spans the length of three tabletops in Schmit’s basement.

Each year, Schmit picks up several more pieces to the collection. His collection has grown so large that he can no longer determine which pieces he already owns without the aid of his note card, which contains an alphabetized list of the hundreds of pieces he already owns.

Every element of the collection, from the palm trees peppered throughout the village to chickens pecking around the chicken coop, is a Fontanini collector item. The collection is displayed year-round, as the set itself took years to complete.

The Holy Family, along with the hundreds of other characters in Schmit’s collection, have taken permanent residency in the set Schmit constructed himself. Schmit constructed the base of the set using insulation which he sculpts and paints dark brown to give the entire set an authentic feel. Hamster bedding is used to replicate terra firma for the miniature Bethlehem.

Schmit’s time invested in his village is not spent on just himself; he opens his basement around Christmas each year for children in his congregation to view the village.

Though he is careful to include only Fontanini items in the village, there are certain pieces of the collection he refuses to purchase: soldiers, angels and the St. Francis of Assisi figurine.

“I won’t buy angels because they weren’t in the village,” Schmit said. “They were in the sky.”

Schmit believes he is far from owning the entire Fontanini collection. He plans to expand his set as often as necessary to accommodate his growing collection.

“I keep adding and telling myself I’ve got to stop sometime,” Schmit said. West Central Tribune


Terry Nelson said...

I think it is unfortunate Fontanini has become the standard for creche sets.

Unknown said...

Seriously, Terry, what would be consider to be the standard for affordable home creche sets?

When I purchased mine over the years, and they weren't particularly inexpensive, I thought that they were the best available.