The parish hall at St. Mary Presentation Catholic Church is always bright and full of natural light. In December, there is an added gleam as the hall becomes home to Father Tom Connolly’s Nativity Fair. Thousands of figurines fill tables and displays, all celebrating the birth of Christ. Father Connolly’s collection of crèches (nativity scenes) has been decades in the making. For him, the Nativity scene is central to his personal Christmas tradition. “I always, always, have loved the Nativity,” Connolly said. “It has always been important to me, even as a kid, at Christmas to have a nativity, even more than a Christmas tree.”
His collection began not with a purchase of a scene for himself, but a gift he and his brother purchased. As a child in Norman, Oklahoma, he and his brother would sell peanuts and popcorn at university football games. They used their earnings to purchase a Hummel set that they bought for their mother and father for Christmas as well as their anniversary.
After graduating college, Connolly traveled to Korea for a civilian job with the U.S. military. He began leading the community theater on base, producing shows made for the soldier, by the soldier. While working in Korea for 11 years, Connolly was promoted to director of base recreation. During this time, he traveled throughout the region, and in 1988, he received what would be the second set in his eventual collection of Nativity scenes.
In Korea, Connolly was also involved with the base chapel and had been considering a vocation to the priesthood. At an event on Father’s Day at the base chapel, he ducked out of the rain into his nearby office, and the base chaplain joined him. The priest asked him if he had considered becoming a priest, Connolly said “yes” and told the chaplain he even had an interview with a diocese arranged. The base chaplain, Father Roy Floch, told him that he should consider his home diocese of Spokane instead. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Connolly was studying for the priesthood in Rome, he heard about a Nativity fair and, while he never attended, he thought it was a wonderful idea. His fascination with the Nativity grew. Seeing the differences in nativity scenes from various cultures was moving to Connolly. He said in many of the Northern European scenes, all the figurines gather around the Christ child. More Mediterranean-style scenes tend to place the manger scene in a larger context of the business of Bethlehem; Christ is born in the midst of life.
Father Connolly said what is so impactful for him is when “you look at the international ones, you notice how different people see Jesus.” The variety of scenes he has on display are truly magnificent. One scene was made in Iran—others are Russian icon-style paintings of the Nativity; some are intricate, while others are made of simple materials such as cornhusks. Every scene sheds a new light and shares another perspective of the incarnation.
The figurines are not just a collection of knick-knacks for Father Connolly, but an expression of his interest in the devotion to the Nativity and how we all experience that devotion from our own perspective. When asked what the Nativity scene means to him, Father Connolly said, “It is love, it is total love. Just like the crucifix, for me it is total love.”
Since his ordination, Father Connolly has hosted a Nativity fair at every parish where he has served and has only missed one year in all his years of priesthood. He began displaying his Nativity scenes at St. Mary in Spokane Valley and invited parishioners to bring some of their crèches as well. They filled two tables with the display. Since those early years nearly two decades ago, Father Connolly has served in Pomeroy, Clarkston, and again in Spokane. He has picked up more scenes along the way. Holy Family School in Clarkston, as well as St. Charles School in Spokane, both have bought him Nativity scenes as thank you gifts for his time with their school and parishes. Families have also donated, and his collection has grown to the thousands.
The parish in Deer Park has welcomed the Nativity Fair as an exciting December tradition with parishioners helping to stage the event.
Recently, Father Connolly received a call from a husband and wife in Seattle who said they own about 1,000 crèches. “They display them in their basement, but they were wanting to know if I wanted to take them and put them into a museum,” Connolly said. “But I have no place to put them.” Looking to the future, he dreams of how the fair could continue to grow. “My dream would be that somebody would donate a building to make a museum for the Nativity so that it could be a standing collection always honoring the birth of Jesus.”
Nativity scenes started as an effort by St. Francis of Assisi to bring the joy of the incarnation alive for people in medieval Assisi. The first scenes were living scenes, with live animals and people playing the roles. Father Connolly’s Nativity Fair continues that legacy of St. Francis. The joy and love expressed in the incarnation is reflected in the many crèches on display in Deer Park.
Come visit the Nativity Fair! The Fair is open:
• Saturday, Nov. 30, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
• Sunday, Dec. 1, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• Monday-Friday, Dec. 2-6, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
• Saturday, Dec. 7, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. and it ends on
• Sunday, Dec. 8, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
St. Mary Presentation Church | 602 E 6th St, Deer Park, WA 99006
About 20 miles north of downtown Spokane.