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

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

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-by-side 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. - 4p.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.”