Nativity scene legacy continues at Christ the King

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

A collection of two Fontanini figurines that Christ the King Church’s former pastor, Father Jose Ladra, began in Cuba in 1958 before he fled to the United States during the Cuban Revolution, has grown into a nativity scene of the town of Bethlehem that encompasses an 18-by-18-foot space inside the Gretna church’s cry room.

“It’s become quite a tradition,” said Linda Gober Smith, who coordinates the Nativity scene with Father Jose Nativity Committee members Karen Coombs, Patrick Fremin, Milagros Matthews, Rachel Hymel and Neva Frazier.

The nativity will be revealed Christmas Eve after  the 5:30 p.m. Mass, Smith said, when choir director Roberto Matthews will sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It will remain on display until Jan. 15, 2018.

Smith and other parishioners didn’t want to see Father Ladra’s tradition end when he died in 2006, so they petitioned their new pastor, Father Michael Nam Nguyen, to allow them to keep it going.

Smith has never counted all the pieces, but committee members estimate that it is close to 1,000 pieces since in addition to the larger pieces of houses, buildings, village scenes, trees and animals and a working fountain, there are tiny loaves of bread, fruit, carrots, brass containers, doves, etc., all packed inside tackle boxes.

Bethlehem comes alive

The mammoth display depicts many scenes, including a wedding, a bazaar, a fair, marketplace, a village with two guard towers at the entrance, an olive grove and a vineyard.

While most of the pieces are from the Italian company Fontanini, Father Ladra had amassed a few mechanical structures that are now used in what Smith calls “the forest.”

And, the display changes every year. Two years ago, Herod’s Temple was added. This year, a volunteer replaced the lake made from Katrina-tarp with a new one, and Christmas music will be added.

“We are constantly adding, taking away and changing,” Smith said. “It’s new each year. We try to compose a scene as to how it actually would have looked at the time.”

Parishioners welcome the display and tell the committee they look forward to it annually.

“Parishioners have favorite scenes and pieces and ask where they are,” committee member Patrick Freeman said.

They also have been supportive in donations to buy 32 new tables on which to hold the display and to pay for the climate-controlled storage where the figures sit year-round.

Smith said an anonymous  donor helped pay for a new backdrop that will be used in 2018. She’s hoping to add new lights and possibly synchronizing the lights with the Christmas music.

A dream of Smith’s is that one day people will be able to walk around the village. “So people can see (the beauty) of everything up close.”

“Carrying on the legacy brings a lot of life here and brings the community together,” Smith said.

Christ the King is located at 535 Deerfield Road in Terrytown. The display is open from after the Christmas Eve Mass at 5:30 p.m. until Jan. 15 after all weekend Masses:  Saturday 4:30, 6:30 p.m. (Spanish); Sunday: 8, 10:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m. and by appointment. Call 361-1500.

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