Restoration of Antique Nativity

A Nativity Story

BACKGROUND:  Around 2000, I came to live in Vernon Rockville, Connecticut, recuperating from injuries from an accident.   Just when I thought my life and work would be downed, maybe permanently, new opportunities found me, like the task of restoring a beloved old collection of figures for the Creche, or manger scene, at a local church.

 I might restore the figures, to say thank you for the community support for me while healing - especially since I had the interest and love and skills.  Father White mentioned that the creche had been there when he arrived but that he was retiring and could not take up the project himself.  But the pastor who succeeded him, Father Rick Ricard, took up the project happily.

BEGIN THE TASK:    We  planned, researched the specifics of tech needs for old, early fiberglass;  shopped for the supplies and got to work. Five minutes on the job and , everyone on the village park shoppes area knew of the project !  It was clear that the Old Nativity Figures were important to them.    I was thrilled with the interest and said so.    "It wouldn't be Christmas without that Creche", one said, " I am 55, and they were here as far back as I can remember."  I felt much better supported in the work ahead. 


BLESSING:   The Old Convent Garage was my studio and 'Step One', of course, was assessment of the details of the task.   I took "Before" photos of the group of figures,  for reference and comparison later, and smiled when this "odd" exposure effect presented to me at upload. The image of this Glowing Infant figure was inspiring, as I set to work. 


  THE TASK DELIVERS AN EXCITING SURPRISE !   :  Following the norm for the work of restoring fourteen life-sized figures involved:  Research into Provenance, technical needs and update research for best materials/methods/process.
Inspection revealed incised ID numbers and letters and a name  at the foot of the pedestals.   And internet search was a revelation: the figures were designed by  Dick Wiken,  a world-class sculptor with many fine achievements to his credit,  and the man who designed the head for the famous WPA Doll.   Big Story!    
I took the revelations to the church.  What a delightful moment, and happy hum among us, like on the "Antiques Roadshow" program many of us never miss.   Further investigation resulted in official respect for the restoration. It would take longer to do than I could afford to gift.  And I was paid.

MORE REVELATIONS:  The Community must have truly loved that group!   After more than 50 years,  all 14 figures were there and intact !   When the word got around about the restoration, a few men of the parish found me and they were jubilant:   there had been  a special care group for the figures. Over time, the numbers of the group dwindled and faded, but remained.  One of the now-mature "apprentices" , was thrilled to find me to celebrate this restoration of spirit as well as figures.


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PROCESS:  The very old paint was  pale and chipped and flaked,  efforts to repair it in the past were not lasting. Most of the figures showed pitting - a natural dehydration effect with old fiberglass "Blo-molds".  Many had cracks and the delicate Infant Jesus figure had lost a thumb;  a toe and one arm had large holes in two places.  At every step, this project was dripping with symbolism.

The  lovely features would  shine again - effects, and details in costumes and trimmings meant a fine and fancy finish to it all.    "Planning my play" fixed an issue with thinner fumes;  I would do all the related tasks, then open the fumey stuff, work fast , and close it up, then finish for the day.   

I began with the Angel - so she could bless the project and keep an eye on me while I worked.   The effects I was able to obtain were very encouraging.   The infant's injuries wanted more attention.  I sang and prayed and worked with a feeling of privilege, continuing on to the Statues of Mary and Joseph;  the Shepherds and Wise Men;  the Lambs and the good Donkey.  The faithful animals were sentinels as worked. 

Dirt and flaking were removed, and surfaces smoothed.  The putty/filler repaired the cracks and the parish sexton did some wood restorations to the wooden support for the donkey and found an area heater when the weather cooled, and extra lights, when the days shortened.   Then the primer coat to seal and protect was followed by the new paints for each figure and  that, in turn, sealed and shined with clear topcoat.  Completed well.  And all in homage to the Holy Family who changed the world.  

DONE AND TIME TO COME TO THE STABLE:  Time to set up the Nativity Figures had arrived, and the last sweep with the paintbrush on the rosy cheek of the Infant Jesus figure!   The men of the parish set up the life-sized lighted wooden stable, nestled in beds and stacks of hay. 

Once again, the Angel was called on first - and her figure attached over the door of the stable to hover in exultation.  

Donkey, lambs, shepherds, Magi, and finally Mary and Joseph completed the scene of waiting for the Coming of the Savior.  The Infant figure would not be placed till near Christmas Eve.   A photo of the creche I restored appeared, at the Saint Bernard Church website Home page, front and center at the 2007 Christmas season. There was also a note about the Restoration and the invitation to the parish to join the annual event of caroling and placing the Infant in the creche on Dec.22, 2007 after the 5pm Vigil Mass.     In December, it was already evening at that time of day, and so lunaria were lit and placed for their glow along the path from church to site of the creche - all followed and gathered round and began the carols.

Then, Father Rick Ricard, pastor, brought the Infant figure from the rectory to the site, and presented it to a little boy and a little girl, who, together, placed the Infant in the manger.   I sang to the Infant represented by that figure, often, with it in my lap, while at the work the past months, and this time, I was joined by quite a chorus and lead by our priests.

They say it was chilly out, but not at the Creche that night!

I was glad we had chosen the super-weatherproof paints used on fiberglass yachts - it was clear and cold, but, even if it was freezing rain, the glow of the figures would win through for many years.     In fact, it glows naturally with an nearly-spooky photo-realistic effect - if the air gets very cold the skin tones change hue,  just as though they were live.     And then when it warms, the color returns to normal.  

I was enjoying the pageant, at the back of the crowd - when  Father called me up to the front of the group to recognize me, personally, and the work involved - I used to enjoy hearing the word "gratified" when others were in my place, and now that word was mine to say and feel. The moment was the kind of treasure nothing can mar. 

All was merry and bright!  Caroling continued and then a cheer followed by the invitation from Father to join the reception at the rectory, which proceeded to the church hall for refreshments and more chat, to make a special evening marking the completion and beginning of special things! 


NEW! Latest book about the famous Sculptor features these figure molds, including the famous WPA Doll's head, and leading architectural sculptures.     

Dick Wiken, Milwaukee Architectural Sculptor