There is no more room at the inn.

But that didn't stop an Akron-area church from taking in Mary and Joseph and the Christ child — some 600 of them — along with enough donkeys to fill the Akron Zoo and dozens of Wise Men and an accompanying multitude of angels.

With the name Nativity of the Lord Jesus, how could the Catholic church in Springfield Township say no when boxes and boxes of Nativity sets and related items showed up recently looking for a place to stay?

The collection belonged to the late Dean Hoobler of Iowa, who amassed it over his lifetime, and it was sitting in an attic.

When he passed away, the family looked online and found the church, which is home to one of the country's only year-round Nativity museums, as well as a replica of the original Bethlehem Cave where it is believed that Jesus was born.

At first, the church politely declined the donation, explaining to the family that the congregation already had hundreds of Nativities on display in cabinets and cases, and countless others tucked away in storage. The church had gotten another donation of 200 or so Nativities from a Barberton collector in 2017.

But like Joseph with the kindly innkeeper, the family from Iowa was insistent, and even rented a truck to make the cross-country pilgrimage to Ohio in October with about 40 totes filled to the brim with Nativities.

The museum's curator, Kathleen Conrad, said there was one caveat: The church wanted a stipulation that any pieces that did not make the cut, or were duplicates of ones already on display, could be offered up for free to families looking to adopt a Nativity. Some would also be set aside for fundraisers to benefit the museum, where it is Christmas morning year-round.

 

Early donations

The church's collection is as old as the parish itself.

It didn't take long after the Cleveland Diocese founded the church in 1977 — with the first Mass at the newly constructed chapel and multipurpose building at the corner of Killian and Myersville roads in 1979 — that the donations of Nativities began arriving.

The collection grew and grew, and eventually found a home when a new church opened in 1992 that has architectural nods to Christ's birthplace, including the crosses 53 inches from the ground at the entrance doors to the sanctuary. This is the height of the door to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The doors of the Bethlehem church were lowered eons ago to discourage invaders from riding horses into the holy space.

The church's stained-glass windows tell the Christmas story with a slight twist.

In one, Isaiah the Prophet holds a scroll proclaiming "The virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel."

At his feet are a lion and a lamb. And a dog named Lucky.

It seems the church's founding pastor, the Rev. David Halaiko, who retired two years ago, took in a stray dog and named him Lucky. The mutt was a church regular, hearing confessions alongside the priest and attending just about every Mass.

So when the construction of the church began, Conrad said, the designers of the windows from Canton included Lucky at the feet of Isaiah.

And Lucky has found his way into some of the Nativities in the museum in the church basement, where if you look closely, you will find him not too far away from Mary and Joseph.

 

Small and large

The eclectic collection includes Nativities as small as a matchbook, one made of coal and another sculpted from wood shavings. There's one made of dried flowers, others of fine porcelain, salt and wax.

And there are enough made of coconut to fill an island.

"Everyone thinks ones made of coconut are unusual," Conrad said. "We end up getting a lot of those."

Many of the Nativities pick up nuances of people who made them, including Eskimos, Native Americans and South Americans.

But there is a limit to the artists' creative license.

"We don't like to exhibit the ones where everyone is a teddy bear," she said. "That's just going too far."

The centerpiece of the museum is the half-scale replica of the famed Bethlehem Cave that guests can tour and even attend Mass there on certain days. It is just the second such replica in America; the other one is in Washington, D.C.

Great care has been taken to ensure it mirrors the original in Bethlehem, right down to the star on the floor marking the spot where Jesus was born.

And like the real one, guests can reach in and touch the hallowed ground.

 

A new infant

This Christmas Eve, the congregation will bless a new infant Jesus who calls the cave home.

Some of his fingers had been broken over the years by curious children who picked him up and accidentally dropped him to the cave's hard floor.

But it was a very intentional act of vandalism last Christmas season that prompted a fundraising effort to replace him and install security cameras in the cave and accompanying museum.

Conrad said they have had a few instances of guests leaving behind inappropriate material like T-shirts and pamphlets over the years, but nothing like what transpired last December.

After the free museum had closed for the day, she said, they discovered someone had burned baby Jesus' eyes, written a Satanic message on his back and set the straw he lies on ablaze.

Miraculously, Conrad said, the fire put itself out and didn't burn down the church.

A police report was made, but the vandal never was caught. The new security cameras help staff keep a watchful eye on the collection.

"It was scary," Conrad said. "It just makes you realize the depth of the evil that is around."

But with visitors numbering in the thousands — particularly around Christmas — and seeing the joy in their faces as they make their way around the museum, Conrad said, it is a gift to be able to witness many pause and tear up as the enter the Bethlehem Cave.

"This is our ministry to talk about what being Christian really is," she said. "Our society is so inundated with Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf. The birth of Christ is something that really happened.

"The Bethlehem Cave is a real place."

 

Craig Webb can be reached at cwebb@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3547.