Christmas at this church means a creche with live animals
By Emily Olsen
In the beginning of December the newly set-up stable and pen outside Old First Reformed Church, a United Church of Christ church, was empty. Signs posted around the edges alternated between verses from Christmas gospel and “Don’t feed the animals.” The animals were not there yet, but they would be soon.
Old First Reformed, on the corner of fourth and Race Street in Philadelphia is known for the live-animal crèche it puts up each year. The Reverend H. Daehler Hayes first began the crèche tradition in 1973 and it has been a part of Christmas at Old First ever since.
Keith Haberern directed church volunteers in building the crèche on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The basic set up is a pen with a stable area in the back. The animals can go underneath the stable for shelter. Mannequins, dressed as members of the Holy Family, shepherds, and wise men are also set up inside the stable. A small fence keeps the animals from knocking them over.
Haberern, 50, has been in charge of building the crèche for the last 20 years. He is an architect and engineer, who also plays mandolin during church services.
Originally the crèche was built out of debris from the church and surrounding buildings after Old First was restored in the late 1960s. By now, most parts have been replaced except for the roof beams. Over the years Haberern has worked to make the set-up of the crèche safer.
“One of the miracles of the crèche is that no one has gotten killed setting it up” said Haberern with a grin.
After the stable and pen structure is set-up, there is still more to do. The mannequins have to be brought up from the basement and dressed. Rosemary Poll, the church secretary is in charge of dressing the mannequins with the help of the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Manuel Shanaberger, and the volunteer coordinator, Kevin Waltz.
“I hate that job” said Poll, 66.
The mannequins are past their prime, to say the least. Poll described them as held together with duct tape.
“We have to tie them upright in the stable since their stands are broken” said Poll.
Old First used to have the mannequins repaired in Delaware County, but Poll said at this point they are beyond saving. It was never an easy trip anyway.
Years ago one of the volunteers offered to drive the mannequins to be repaired up in Delaware county, said Poll. Unfortunately he couldn’t fit all of them in his car. Finally, he ended up tying the last mannequin onto the car roof.
“People slowed down and honked” said Poll, laughing. “It was a wonder he wasn’t pulled over by the police.”
For the rest of the year, the mannequins are placed in a closet, where they terrorize unsuspecting volunteers.
“It’s quite a shock to open a closet and find a whole bunch of naked mannequins” said Poll.
Kevin Waltz, has had special experience with the mannequins. During his first week at the church Waltz, 23, mistakenly opened the closet where the mannequins were kept.
“A mannequin flew out at me” he said. “I didn’t know about the crèche at the time and I thought this was just a very weird church.”
On Christmas Eve at 6:30 pm, the mannequins are replaced by church members who act out the Christmas Story. Even the baby Jesus is played by a real child. A candlelight service is held in the church afterwards.
By the time the animals arrived at Old First, on December 12, 11:30 am, the outside of Old First looked more like a barn than a church. Hay covered the floor of the crèche and bales of it were piled on the church porch. A blue tarp held down by bricks kept the hay dry and even more hay was stacked against the side of the church.
Power cords ran from the church to the lights surrounding the mannequins and to the animals’ heated water troughs. The troughs were heated to keep the water from freezing, said Shanaberger.
The animals were settling in to their new home under the watchful eye of the Rev. Dr. Manuel “Jeff” Shanaberger. Shanaberger, 57, is just as suited to shoveling cow
manure as he is to preaching on Sundays. A native of Virginia, Shanaberger said his father farmed as a hobby in Southern Virginia.
“We had some cows around.”
The one cow, or heifer, sat underneath the shelter at the back. A mannequin dressed as a shepherd and missing all the fingers on its right hand, stood nearby. The donkey, who was a little shy of people, kept to the middle of the pen. The two brown and white goats and two sheep were the friendliest. They spent the afternoon greeting the many visitors and eating the timothy hay set out for them by church volunteers.
“We don’t feed them alfalfa because it made the donkey sick last year” said Shanaberger.
The animals hadn’t been in front of Old First for more than an hour, but they were already making a stir in the city. Tourists leaned out of trolleys to take pictures. Walkers paused to stare and maybe even snap a few pictures with their cell phones.
David O’Reilly the religion writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer was also there. O’Riley, 60, first covered the crèche at Old First 11 years ago. He said it was fun to be back.
“I always need to scramble to come up with a Christmas story” said O’Riley. “I have to write Hanukah and Kwanza stories to.”
O’Reilly originally wanted to drive up to Bucks County to see the animals being loaded up, but the 90 mile round trip made him change his mind.
“There’s not much to be seen anyway” he said, “they just lead the animals onto the truck with a rope and that’s about it.”
Another early visitor was Karla Regula. She had already made friends with one of the goats.
“That’s my goat” she said, scratching the goat beneath the chin.
Regula, 33, became a member of Old Fist four months ago. She only recently moved to Philadelphia and used to work at a zoo in Maryland. Showing off her animal know-how, Regula brayed at the donkey. The donkey responded, though it still remained out of reach in the middle of the pen.
Regula also eyed the timothy hay with a look of concern.
“I hope they know that goats and sheep eat different types of feed.” she said.
Regula was not the first to worry about the animals’ health and safety in the city. Over the years Old First has received a number of angry letters and late night calls from concerned people. The chief worry is that the stable does not protect the animals from the cold December nights.
Actually, the animals are more sheltered in Philadelphia than they are on the farm, said Poll.
“We’ve had the ASPCA show up and laugh the worriers off” said Poll. “We even had a farmer from the Midwest visit and he laughed them off too.”
During the afternoon, Waltz stopped by from time to time to check on the animals.
“They seem to be settling in” he said at around 2:20 pm.
Like Shanaberger, Waltz’ background made him very comfortable caring for Old First’s guests. He grew up on a farm in Wisconsin.
“My family raised beef when I was a kid.” he said with a thick Wisconsin accent.
Waltz also lived near a friend who had a llama farm. When he was older, he helped take the llamas to the county fair.
Waltz wasn’t the animals’ only visitor though. People flocked to the crèche throughout the day and into the evening.
It has been going on for years, said Poll. People can’t help, but stop and look at the crèche.
“People will drive by, find a place to park their cars and come back to have a look” said Poll.
School groups show up, and families that have been coming year after year. In past years, a group of nuns has also been seen praying outside the crèche, said Poll.
Many of the visitors that afternoon had never seen the crèche before.
Barbara Bucci noticed the crèche as she was walking to her car and stopped to have a look. Bucci, who when asked her age simply laughed and said she was a senior citizen, was thrilled with the crèche.
“I think its lovely, that’s what the season is all about” she said.
Matt Mobely, 28, was one of the many people, who stopped to take pictures of the animals with his cell phone. He said that he had seen the crèche being put up and came back to see the animals.
“I love it, I’ve lived in center city most of my adult life and you just don’t see this” he said pointing to the crèche.
Babysitter Tiffany Thorn, 26, could not stop saying “awesome” and “amazing” as she brought her two charges, Sasha, 14 months, and Ivan, 3 to look at the animals.
“I was just getting off the bus and taking Ivan and Sasha home” she said. She took pictures of both children in front of the crèche.
Travis Vitzorik, 3, showed up with his mom Amy.
“Travis just loves farm animals” she said excitedly.
“Hello cow! Hello, hello!” said Travis, waving as the cow as it ambled by.
Other visitors had been coming to the crèche for years. One of them was Emily Collelouri, 26, whose parents had brought her to the crèche since before she could remember.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing at the cow. “It was bigger when I was kid, or I guess I was smaller.”
Monica Ramos’ father first took her to visit the crèche when she was little. He worked right across the street at the U.S. Mint. Ramos, 38, dropped by in the late afternoon in order to take a picture of the donkey for her son.
“I bring my kids every year” she said.
Aaron Chambers was one of the last visitors to stop by as it the sun began to set. He said the crèche was a place of comfort and inspiration for anyone down on his luck.
“This is a place of solitude for the homeless” said Chambers.
Chambers, 49, was one of the many people helped back on their feet by Old First’s outreach programs. These include a homeless shelter run with the Bethesda Project, The Food and Clothing Cupboard, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Many of the people who go to the AA meetings, walk by the crèche on their way out, said Chambers. That was how he first happened on it.
“Every time I see this nativity scene, I realize it’s not about me, but about helping people” said Chambers. “If God could come down to help the world like that, I think, what can I do?”
Chambers said he now tries to help out at Old First as much as he can. He also visits the crèche whenever time will allow.
“This is a place where you can be yourself” he said. “It reminded me that there was more to life than living on an island by yourself.”
Around 4:15 pm, Waltz came to do some cleaning. He replaced the dirty hay and put fresh water in the troughs. The animals were glad to have a visitor in their pen. The donkey butted gently against Waltz’s leg and one of the sheep began to gnaw on his water bucket.
“I don’t think you want to eat that” said Waltz, pushing the sheep away.
On his way out Waltz checked to make sure the gate to the crèche was locked.
“One of my greatest fears is having to chase one of these guys through center and old city” he said.
The crèche at Old First has become a holiday staple for many people in Philadelphia. For Old First it is an important part of their year.
“Its part of our identity” said Shanaberger.
With its lively animals, the crèche is a nice counterpoint to the commercialism of the Christmas season.
“All kinds of people come to look, and meditate” said Poll. “The crèche creates a sense of peace and of what Christmas is really about.”