Story by Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor
It’s easy to picture tongue depressors as the wooden sticks that a doctor would use to examine a patient’s throat and plastic spoons as being a utensil to eat food.
But thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tongue depressors and plastic spoons have found other purposes in helping make something new and beautiful for Christmas in St. James Church, Red Bank.
Over the past couple of years during the Advent season, Father Ariel Robles and parishioners have undertaken a labor of love in which they don their construction and artistic skills to create enhancements for the church’s Nativity display. In 2014 and 2015, they made two mangers to house the newborn King and his beloved parents, Mary and Joseph. The first manger was constructed from tongue depressors, while the second manger was made from white plastic spoons. This past Christmas, the project expanded with a replica of the front façade of St. James Church.
The inspiration to build the first stable during Advent 2014, said Father Robles, who has served as an adjunct priest in St. James Parish since 2008, came after reflecting on the Scripture passage from Luke 2:7, “There’s no room at the inn.”
Since Advent is all about preparing for the coming of the Lord, when the construction first began in 2014, it was decided to build more than just a room.
“We wanted to build a house, a stable,” Father Robles said.
Before work began, Father Robles encouraged the faithful to reflect on their good works and acts of kindness and charity. The acts could be carried out within a person’s home, among other friends and relatives or in the community – such as a neighborhood, workplace, parish or school. Once parishioners decided on their chosen deed, they were asked to write about it on the wooden sticks or the plastic spoons and then place them in a basket set up in the church.
Noting that the collection of sticks was the primary material used to build the mangers, Father Robles said, the more sticks that are collected, “the bigger the house we can make for Jesus.” In order to obtain a large number of sticks meant that a generous amount of good works needed to be performed by the parishioners.
While tongue depressors helped to build the manger in 2014, the material of choice for 2015 were white plastic spoons that were reflective of the theme the parish chose for Advent – “Alleviating Hunger.”
“The people did specific works aimed at satisfying the different types of hunger that exist in our parish,” he said, noting that the parishioners were once again asked to write their good works on the spoon handles.
As for the decision that led to create a replica of St. James Church for 2016, Father Robles said, “Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but that’s history. Jesus must be born anew today in our church, in our community, in our family.”
Gather Robles added the idea to replicate the parish church with some 2,000 tongue depressors was also inspired by the parish’s participation in the diocesan Faith In Our Future initiative.
“Bishop David [O’Connell, C.M.] has been calling on the people to ‘enliven and strengthen’ their parish community as we face the challenges of the future. In response to his call, we built our church – not only out of tongue depressors but out of our good works aimed at strengthening our parish,” he said, noting that the good works written on them include actively participating in Mass, reading the Bible, studying basic catechism, catechizing children, joining parish ministries, bringing people to church and receiving the Sacraments.
He added that at all Masses during Advent, the parish priests – Msgr. Philip Lowery, pastor, Father Mark Nillo, parochial vicar, and Msgr. Eugene Rebeck, weekend assistant, would preach their homilies during which they encouraged all parishioners to assist with the construction of the replica by doing specific good works that would help build and strengthen their parish.
Father Robles said construction began the first week of Advent and was completed a few days before Christmas. Needed tools included a glue gun, pieces of wood, nails and the tongue depressors, not to mention a generous amount of time and patience that parishioners gave toward the project, Father Robles said, noting that it took several hours each week to glue both ends of every stick to form the church.
“We accidentally burnt our hands many times with the extremely hot glue, but we offered up all our pains and sacrifices to the Lord,” Father Robles said with a smile. Other features of the replica included paper printouts depicting the large stained glass window that was used on the façade of the church and of the altar that serves as the backdrop of the Nativity scene.
“We wanted to give the impression that Jesus is born anew every time we celebrate the Eucharist,” said Father Robles.
The replica of St. James Church “represents the faith and spirituality, love and collaboration, prayers and aspirations of the people of St. James Parish,” Father Robles said. “We built him a church and we want to show that he is born anew in our church and in our hearts.”