Nativity at UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh still a source of strength


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People walking a main corridor at UPMC Mercy hospital can see lights twinkling through the window of Holy Family Chapel and a sign beckoning them to visit the elaborate Nativity within.

Those who do find a village scene of 21-inch Fontanini figures. There are Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, with the wise men, shepherds, animals and folklore characters including the drummer boy. The village rests on a 126-square-foot platform surrounded by red and white poinsettias.

Carmen Roa, a social worker at Mercy since 1976, comes to the creche when she is stressed from trying to help families through heartbreaking difficulties.

"I come to ask for strength," she said. "The creche is so beautiful and so restful."

It also reminds her of her native Philippines, where the Nativity is the focal point of Christmas.

"When you look at it, you remember the piety and humility of the holy family. You see how even the kings are awed in the presence of this little child. It reminds you that he was born a king, yet he was born in a stable. I cannot fathom that. It's something you have to revisit each year," she said.

Mercy, which the Sisters of Mercy founded in 1847, was Pittsburgh's first hospital. It is maintained by UPMC as a Catholic institution in ethos and ethics.

A smaller creche has appeared on a central stairway landing each December for decades. But nine years ago, a former chaplain, the Rev. Joe Monahan, arranged a discount for the hospital's Spiritual Care department to buy the large Fontanini set. The House of Fontanini, an Italian company, is famous for expressive figures.

He recruited a local artist, David Ranallo, to help him decorate and light it in the lobby. They needed an electrician, and the maintenance department sent Joe Maley.

Mr. Maley was fascinated and stayed to lend a hand. The next year they requested his help. The third year they put him in charge. He has been caretaker of the creche ever since.

In the off-season he frequents craft shops for new scenery. They are never shops he visited the previous year.

But the 48-year-old bachelor doesn't decorate his own home.

"I never thought of myself as a person who could make something like this. I'm a nuts-and-bolts kind of person," said Mr. Maley, a Catholic who has worked at Mercy for 26 years.

"I put up light bulbs for 51 weeks of the year. But this is something special. This is the light of the world."

Hospital electricians have constant demands on their time.

"I appreciate the fact that they allow me the time to do this. This is a pastoral care item, but they allow a maintenance worker to take care of it. It's absolutely a privilege and an honor," he said.

The creche was moved from the lobby to the chapel three years ago to make way for a new emergency room.

The Rev. Albie Schempp, the chaplain, has seen parents bring their children in to tell them the story of the first Christmas. Recently, he saw a woman wheel her elderly mother in.

"It was almost like the mother had become the child. The daughter was saying, 'Mom, do you see Mary? Do you see Joseph and the baby?' The mother began to cry, saying 'Yes, yes, I see them.' "

Phyllis Grasser, Mercy's vice president for mission effectiveness and spiritual care, recalled a couple who didn't speak English and were long-term visitors to their seriously ill daughter. They often prayed at the creche.

"She would come to me with her hands crossed over her heart and tears in her eyes as a gesture of gratitude," Ms. Grasser said. "It gave them comfort."

For people who are away from home, the creche "represents consistency in the face of the unfamiliar and the unknown. It's an anchor," Father Schempp said.

For himself, "it's a reminder that Christ has to be born again in me, in my heart."

In 2008, after UPMC acquired Mercy, there was a slight delay in erecting the creche for reasons that had nothing to do with the merger, Ms. Grasser said. "Right away employees began calling me, concerned that we wouldn't have it anymore," she said. She assured them that UPMC had no objection to the creche, which many employees regard as a symbol of the hospital's spirit.

Hank Freedy, a clinical pharmacist at Mercy for 46 years, attends daily Mass in the chapel.

"This is a reminder to be thankful that I work in a Catholic hospital where I can express my faith freely and openly. You walk around here and there are symbols of faith everywhere," he said. "A lot of good, faithful Catholics don't have that opportunity."

Jeanne Crichlow, the director of volunteer and community services, is an Episcopalian. She doesn't attend Mass in the chapel, "but I appreciate the creche as an illustration of the real Christmas story. Jesus should be the focus of Christmas," she said.

Mercy Sister Elaine DiZinno, who provides pastoral care to guests at the McAuley Inn, where the family members of patients stay, often contemplates the scene. She imagines herself as the little girl selling fruits and vegetables in the miniature village.

"I love her. I go and talk to her," Sister Elaine said. "I tell her how much I like her being there in my place. If I were her, I would feel very privileged to be there and to be accepted for who I am. She doesn't put on any pretenses or false dignity or pride. She is a simple person bringing the best she has to offer."

Sister Placid McDonald, a medical technologist in the chemistry lab for 48 years, believes the Mercy creche is "very special."

"It's such a human portrayal of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. It invites you in, so you want to be closer to the holy family," she said. "It shows that God came to be one of us in our daily lives. The whole Christmas mystery is there. It's a mystery, but a very joyful and welcoming one."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published December 25, 2012 5:00 AM


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