Franciscan friar's collection of crèches illustrates Nativity story, with views from around globe

50 art pieces on display at Moerlein Brewing
Posted at 7:14 AM, Dec 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-19 10:24:51-05

CINCINNATI -- When Tim Sucher was a preschooler growing up in Price Hill, he and his brother saved their pennies and bought a crèche, a group of figurines depicting the infant Jesus Christ, lying in a cattle feeding trough, surrounded by his parents, shepherds and wise men.

Sucher, 63, is now a Franciscan friar who serves as the pastoral associate for St. Francis Seraph Roman Catholic Church in Over-the-Rhine. But he still has the crèche and the wooden stable his father built for it.

It’s on display at the Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., 1621 Moore St., just down the street from the church, along with about 50 other crèches and other Christmas memorabilia that Sucher has collected over the years.

Brother Tim Sucher created an entire town – that might look a bit like Bethlehem -- to display his Fontanini figurines. (Photo by Kevin Eigelbach)

The crèches come from all over the world, every habitable continent except Australia. Countries represented include China, Peru, Indonesia, Italy and Kenya.

The largest is probably the one that Sucher’s mother gave him. Each figurine is about a foot tall. Sucher created a display for it, with a fountain and artificial pine trees covered in lights.

The smallest is probably a carving from Africa that fits in the hand. When it’s closed, it looks like a fat twig, but it opens to reveal a mother and father, a star and a baby boy carved into the wood.

The oddest is probably a Peanuts crèche, with Charlie Brown as St. Joseph and his sister Lucy as the Virgin Mary. Or possibly the American crèche, in which one angel holds a half-eaten Oreo in one hand and, with the other, extends a whole Oreo toward the baby Jesus.

For the past few years, Sucher has displayed them at the brewery. Before that, he displayed them at the Franciscan Friary in Over-the-Rhine, where he and nine other friars live, and where the Franciscans have their provincial headquarters.

Nativity scenes like these were important to St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order.

“St. Francis’ spirituality was based heavily in the idea that God became a human being (at Christmas),” Sucher said. “Christmas was especially important for him.”

A sign among Sucher’s crèches tells the story of the crèche St. Francis organized in 1226. He found a cave and some animals and received permission from the local bishop to hold a midnight Mass there.

An American Indian crèche shows the Holy Family speaking, reflecting the oral tradition of American Indian culture. Photo by Kevin Eigelbach)

Legend has it that the crèche proved to be such a powerful experience that during the Mass, the congregation saw the baby Jesus in St. Francis’ arms.

Sucher has displayed his creches on shelves he’s made and lined with Christmas lights, which help dispel the gloom of the dimly lighted brewery.

One crèche is part of an elaborate mock-up of a town of Jesus’ time that Sucher built using figurines made by the House of Fontanini, which Sucher has been collecting for about 40 years. The figurines are set among tiny palm trees, hills made from papier-mache and walls made from pebbles.

Sucher purchased some crèches himself, but many were donated from friends who find them traveling abroad, or from friars stationed in other countries.

“Here’s the controversial one,” Sucher said of one crèche with all African American figures, including a female “wise man” or magi.

It’s interesting how every culture sees the nativity through its own eyes, Sucher said, and people often depict the characters of that first Christmas wearing the clothes of their own culture.

“It gives you the idea that the message of Christmas is universal,” he said.