How a ‘mag­nif­i­cent Beau­fort vi­sion’ cap­tures the joy and mean­ing of the Christ­mas season

The Beaufort Gazette (Sunday) - - Lowcountry Life - BY RYAN COPELAND Spe­cial to The Is­land Packet/ The Beau­fort Gazette

Like scales fall­ing from her eyes, once Donna Sheetz saw the true worth of a Christ­mas season na­tiv­ity dis­play, it was a dif­fi­cult thing to un­see.

“I didn’t have an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its beauty un­til my eyes were opened, and now I no­tice them ev­ery­where” said Sheetz.

Not quite as dra­matic as Saul’s con­ver­sion to Paul, Sheetz was nev­er­the­less drawn into the world of col­lect­ing and dis­play­ing na­tiv­ity sets by a fel­low mem­ber of the First Pres­by­te­rian Church in Beau­fort, the late Mar­ion Leach.

“She was the epit­ome of love­li­ness,” said Sheetz. “She had a way of tak­ing an idea and mak­ing it hap­pen and mak­ing you want to be a part of it.”

Leach had gone to Mon­cks Cor­ner for years to par­tic­i­pate in the Creche Fes­ti­val put on by the Trap­pist Monks at Mep­kin Abbey.

In 2011, the idea came to her to dis­play col­lec­tions of na­tiv­ity sets in a sim­i­lar man­ner on a lo­cal level at First Pres­by­te­rian. The fol­low­ing year, she set her sights higher and asked for help from church mem­bers to pull off an ex­hibit of per­sonal na­tiv­ity sets — you know, the ones we pull out of stor­age ev­ery De­cem­ber in the hopes none of the sheep or wise men have dis­ap­peared.

Sheetz was among those who an­swered the call in help­ing set up the dis­play in the church fel­low­ship hall.

When Leach passed away last year, she had well over 50 na­tiv­ity sets in her per­sonal col­lec­tion, but the bulk of keep­ing the yearly dis­plays go­ing falls to Sheetz and women like her.

“I have such a pas­sion for it,” she said. “I have no shame. I cor­ner peo­ple all the time to talk about it.”

Get­ting the scenes to­gether and ar­ranged and prop­erly placed takes time and care. Sheetz’s hus­band knows he has to sched­ule an ap­point­ment to see his wife over the next two weeks.

In the past sev­eral years, as the yearly event has grown, some images have stuck with Sheetz. One that stands out is of a group of chil­dren from nearby Holy Trin­ity Clas­si­cal School shar­ing the room with a group from Sum­mit Place As­sisted Liv­ing, young and old side-by­side in quiet awe of the sur­round­ing de­pic­tions of star­lit mangers. And it’s lit­tle sur­prise the room would be quiet.

Sheetz de­scribes the “mag­nif­i­cent vi­sion” that hits when vis­i­tors first en­ter the ex­hibit. It comes from ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the sheer artistry and va­ri­ety in­volved.

Over 140 na­tiv­ity sets cover ev­ery size and medium imag­in­able, in­clud­ing sets made from corn­husks, oys­ter shells, fine china, bent nails and match­boxes. The same bi­b­li­cal scene is given a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion by each cre­ator.

The sets come from all parts of Amer­ica, Eu­rope, Africa, and, of course, your lo­cal at­tics and clos­ets and glass shelves. Some were earnestly and thought­fully col­lected; some were do­nated; and some were re­ceived in in­her­i­tance.

There’s a sat­is­fac­tion for the Pres­by­te­rian women that comes when the dis­play is fi­nally ready and the first vis­i­tors come in, but most of it comes from the looks on the faces of those who ap­pre­ci­ate the in­her­ent ho­li­ness of the as­sort­ment.

“It’s uplift­ing for many, but it’s a gift back to us, too, when we see the re­ac­tions of joy and com­fort,” said Sheetz.

Dr. Patrick Per­ry­man, se­nior pas­tor at First Pres­by­te­rian, also thinks of the joy in­volved when his church mem­bers take the lead in this act of ser­vice.

“What be­gan as a mod­est dis­play of sev­eral beau­ti­ful creches has blos­somed into a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to share the story of Je­sus’ birth with hun­dreds of vis­i­tors,” said Per­ry­man.

“Each dis­play also car­ries the story of the fam­ily who has of­fered it for the oc­ca­sion.”

You have a chance for your own mem­o­rable view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence next week­end at First Pres­by­te­rian on Fri­day and Satur­day from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sun­day af­ter­noon un­til 2 p.m.

There’s no cost in­volved, but a free will of­fer­ing will be ac­cepted. The church is at 1201 North Street in Beau­fort.

For Sheetz, the na­tiv­i­ties are a re­flec­tive metaphor and timely re­minder of the hu­man­ity around us.

“Even though ev­ery one of us is unique, no mat­ter the dif­fer­ences, we are all the same in so many ways.”

Sub­mit­ted photo

One of the na­tiv­ity scenes at the First Pres­by­te­rian Church in Beau­fort.

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