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One of the most diverse collections of yuletide Nativity sets in upstate New York began 27 years ago, when a parish priest’s imagination was turned on by a set of ebony figures hand-carved in Africa to depict the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Today, the collection has grown to 385 sets – no two of them alike – from 55 countries, and they all are on free public display every Saturday and Sunday through Jan. 6 in SS. Columba-Brigid Catholic Church at Hickory and Eagle streets, one block south of Clinton Street.

The Rev. Roy T. Herberger, pastor, was so impressed by the craftsmanship of those coal-black ebony figures on display at a religious education convocation in Baltimore that he dug into his own pocket and came up with $800 to buy that first Nativity set, which is on display with the other 384 sets that he has added to his personal collection since. “That scene just stuck with me from a spiritual standpoint,” he said.

The most recent addition to his collection is a tableau of brightly colored miniatures from Guatemala.

Father Roy, as he prefers to be called, bought most of the sets from stores or on the Internet, and a few have been given to him by friends. They are not for sale, but the manger scenes cost from as little as $8 each to $1,000 for a clay-carved set from Ghana.

“My dream is to have a building or a museum where all of these scenes can be placed on permanent display,” Father Roy said Sunday afternoon as a steady stream of visitors strolled among the sets on display in a large dining room attached to SS. Columba-Brigid Church. “I want them to inspire other people; this is not just about my own enjoyment. Christ came upon this earth for all people; how can we depict this diversity?

“I would like to top off a permanent display with a painting of the real Joseph, Mary and Jesus to convey the message that this was a Jewish family. Whether you are religious or not, this is an inspiring display of the artistic craftsmanship of the people.”

The manger scenes are made of such diverse materials as glass, banana leaves, coconut leaves, coal, soft-drink cans, automobile parts, crocheting, olive wood, birch wood, pine needles, newspapers, Popsicle sticks, straw and more. Two of the sets each have one wise woman along with two wise men. One of the wise men brought his Bible along with him.

One of the largest sets is from France, with 45 people and animals. There also are marionettes from Slovakia; penguins, fish and polar bears from Alaska; a zebra and giraffe from Africa; and a Native American dog and bison. Wilka Rodriguez, a parishioner who was acting as hostess Sunday afternoon, said the figures range from about ¼-inch tall and able to fit into a matchbox to about 2 feet tall and depicting members of the Maasai tribe in their native clothing.

There also is a separate section for children and a “scavenger hunt” in which visitors can search for Santa Claus, a birthday cake, a canoe instead of a manger, and a rooster among the more traditional Holy Family, angels, wise men, shepherds and their animals.

Among Sunday’s visitors were five women who had read about the display in their church bulletin at St. Mary of the Lake Parish in the Town of Hamburg. One of them, Georgia Pietraszek, said, “I highly encourage everyone to come and see this. Nobody should miss it.” Her companions – Susan Haas, Nancy Yager, Joann Schneider and Marielaine Starr – all had similar comments.

Among the more than 100 visitors over the weekend, Robert Webster of Buffalo commented, “I’m 90 and never saw anything like this. It’s awesome.”

“It’s beautiful! Thank you for sharing it,” said Joyce and Phil Bobrowski, of Kenmore.

Father Roy credited Pastoral Associate Paula Hunt for helping to organize the display and student volunteers from Canisius College for helping to set it up. The free display is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday for the next five weekends.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com