By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
LONG GROVE — “There’s Fairyland!” a grandmother exclaimed to family members as they viewed a section of Msgr. Drake Shafer’s elaborate Christmas Village in the gathering space at St. Ann Catholic Church.
More than 200 tiny buildings — houses, stores, restaurants, movie theaters, churches and schools — a revolving Ferris wheel and people figurines populate the village that Msgr. Shafer has been creating since 1976. The display and its back drop scenery painted by parishioner Chris Noel Behnke loosely depict the seven rural communities that make up St. Ann’s Parish.
On Dec. 30, residents from Grand Haven Retirement Community in Eldridge, as well as other senior citizens and their relatives, strolled through the village and stayed for lunch prepared by parish volunteers. The village tour and lunch for seniors has become a tradition that the pastor, born on Christmas Eve, thoroughly enjoys. And so do his guests.
“It’s really beautiful. I come to church here. I sneak a look every time I come,” said Joie VanDeCasteele.
“Wonderful!” said an appreciative Harriett Bump, who turned 102 in November. “It’s so good it was recognized in the paper (The Quad-City Times),” added Harriet, who was accompanied by her daughter Cathie Lange of Parkview. Harriett said she remembers worshipping in the considerably smaller predecessor to the present St. Ann church building.
Msgr. Shafer sees the village as an evangelization tool. “A lot of it is grandparents bringing their grandchildren. It’s neat.” The Christmas Village, now open during daytime hours through mid-January, has attracted Protestants as well as Catholics. They also see two Nativity displays — one near the doorway and the other in the Joachim chapel. The latter resembles Italian Renaissance crèches.
The Christmas Village began on a much smaller scale when then-Father Shafer was a young priest teaching at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. While browsing in a store called Seasonal Concepts after Christmas, he saw a Snow Village and was hooked. He paid $3 to $4 for individual pieces. “I thought the idea of a Christmas Village was neat, only under a tree.”
With friends, colleagues and family members purchasing pieces each year to add to the collection, the village grew. Nieces and nephews delighted in seeing the display each year.
The village followed Msgr. Shafer to St. Ann’s, when he became pastor six years ago and it will stay there because he has donated it to the parish. “It has become a big part of the parish’s identity for the holidays. It goes down right after the Baptism of the Lord in mid-January.” Twenty people — staff and volunteers assemble and dismantle the display, working on it in sections.
One of the village’s whimsical figures is a tiny monkey that the parish’s children get to hide somewhere in the village. Whoever finds the monkey gets to hide it. Seven-year-old Mya Kelsey found the monkey Dec. 30 with the help of her mom and re-hid it.
Msgr. Shafer says he can’t choose a favorite piece in the Christmas Village. “I probably like the older pieces personally because many of them have memories for me of the people who gave them to me or times and places they remind me of. Today my favorites are the ones that bring smiles to the faces of parishioners.”
Initially, he decided to give his Christmas Village to the parish because “I thought people would enjoy it and in some way it would remind them of the communities that are part of the parish. Then it grew doubling and quadrupling and I knew it could never go into any home. Finally, I confess to chuckling over what the next pastor will think about getting saddled with it, especially when it’s time to set it up and take it down.”