On Saturday 2 December 2023, St Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Dandenong North celebrated 20 years of the Australian Nativity Scene (ANS), widely regarded as Australia’s best and biggest traditional nativity scene.
Created by artist Wilson Fernandez in 2003, the nativity scene has grown considerably since then, with Mr Fernandez introducing new elements every year. As of 2023, there are 891 figurines included in the piece, 222 handmade items, 130 trees and plants, and 480 kilograms of sand.
In a speech after Mass, which was celebrated by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, Mr Fernandez explained how the project began all those years ago under the inspiration of Fr Tadeusz Ziolkowski, who was then the parish priest at St Elizabeth’s. Fr Tad came over for Christmas lunch one day and observed with admiration the homemade crib Mr Fernandez had made for his family. Recognising the talent, Fr Tad encouraged him to create a scene for their parish.
The Australian Nativity Scene has now grown to become one of the many ‘sights’ for people from around the world to visit while in Melbourne, and is a much-loved work of art, especially among the people of St Elizabeth’s.
Among the many things that make this nativity scene memorable are the materials Mr Fernandez has used to make the scene more authentic: soils, clay, straw, plants and bark have all been used to create the village of Bethlehem, with handmade huts, stables, mountains, rivers and much more.
Another feature of Mr Fernandez’ nativity scene is the story it tells every week in the lead-up to Christmas. To help communicate the true meaning of Christmas, the scene undergoes changes from the first week of Advent. Starting with the villagers going about their usual business, the story progresses with Mary and Joseph searching for an inn and staying in the stable, which then leads into the birth of Christ and the visitation of the shepherds and Magi, concluding with the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt.
‘People not just from [the] Christian faith but all walks of life do visit us from far and near,’ Mr Fernandez said. It is an excellent opportunity to share the faith with people, he said, especially when they start asking where the baby Jesus is in the first week of Advent. ‘I say, “He’s not born yet!”’
Mr Fernandez spoke with us about some of the inspiration behind the scene.
To help communicate the true meaning of Christmas, the scene undergoes changes from the first week of Advent.
From a young age, Mr Fernandez says, he was ‘blessed with artistic talents in many forms’.
‘Growing up as a child, I watched and observed my uncle do painting and creating other forms of artwork,’ he says. ‘That was my first inspiration as a child … I eventually developed skills in painting, hand sketching, rangoli [colour powder designs], clay modelling, pookalam (Kerala flower designs) and the ikebana [Japanese art of flower arrangement].’
Back in Kumta, India, where he grew up, Mr Fernandez often made his own crib and brought it home from school. His parents were the ‘greatest supporters’ of his work, amazed by the quality of the nativity scenes he brought home. It was his father who encouraged him to enrol in their local church crib competition in 1979.
‘During the creation process, I cut my right-hand little finger. The scar is still a reminder of that nativity scene,’ he says.
Mr Fernandez won that competition, motivating him to keep creating his own crib every year, even after moving to Australia in 1991. He describes his conversation with Fr Tad that Christmas in 2002 as a ‘stepping stone’ onto a passion project that has grown beyond his wildest expectations.
The Australian Nativity Scene is open for public viewing from 4 December 2023 to 12 January 2024. The preparation for this begins around July or August.
‘When I first started, I had limited resources,’ he says, ‘but gave the crib a “wow” factor by adding local and natural materials like sand, stones, plants et cetera.’ At first, the parishioners at St Elizabeth’s had no idea who was behind the crib, but when they found out, they started chipping in and helping to fund the growing project.
‘I take time off from work for this project every year. I spend approximately over 250 hours each year. I try to keep it interesting year after year with changes in landscape, display looks, adding features of lake, water features, caves, et cetera. This year, I have added 29 new figurines, five new handmade houses and walls.’
Through this nativity scene and the weekly story it tells, Mr Fernandez wants to carry forward the tradition created by St Francis of Assisi and share the true meaning of Christmas. In fact, in the same year that this nativity scene celebrates its 20th anniversary, we also mark the 800th anniversary of that very first crib made by St Francis in the hill town of Greccio, about 100 kilometres north of Rome.
Through this nativity scene and the weekly story it tells, Mr Fernandez wants to carry forward the tradition created by St Francis of Assisi.
‘The work that St Francis of Assisi started is something that I [continue], translating the birth of Christ into an art form that gives people a feeling of going back in time. The first impression is that it looks so natural and real. Why? My idea was to create a scene that takes people back to the times of Christ,’ he explains.
Over the years, Mr Fernandez says he has had many encounters with people who have appreciated the weekly story of the scene. Teachers have used it to help their students understand the Christmas story, and while preparing the display for public viewing, he gets many children peering through the church windows to see him work.
The first impression is that it looks so natural and real. Why? My idea was to create a scene that takes people back to the times of Christ.
‘People from other faiths who visit to watch the nativity scene truly admired not just the display but the weekly story and understood what Christmas meant,’ he says. ‘I’ve had non-Catholic individuals who regularly brought people and groups from aged care centres who knew nothing about Christmas other than Santa Claus, Christmas trees and lighting … Viewing the nativity scene gave them a true meaning of Christmas.’
Mr Fernandez hopes his artistic talents can inspire his own children. ‘I do it with passion, and hopefully, I look forward to pass on some form of art skills to my daughters.’
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