By Mary Margaret Halford
CARY— As a schoolteacher for 38 years in Cary and Rolling Fork, Mary Hazel Weissinger took advantage of her Christmas and summer breaks and usually spent that time traveling the world. On a Christmastime trip to Alaska with her late husband, Charles Hyde Weissinger Sr., Mary Hazel stumbled across a nativity that she wanted to add to her small, but growing collection.
“I’ve always had a special feel for nativities,” said the 88-year-old parishioner of Our Mother of Mercy in Anguilla. “Every time I visited another country, I tried to find a nativity. I saw a little bitty one that caught my eye in Alaska, and it keeps growing from there.”
Weissinger’s nativity collection dates back to the early 1960s when her brother and cousin were living in Germany and sent her a Hummel nativity in pieces.
“It seems like it’s been always,” Weissinger said with a laugh, “like I’ve always had the nativities.”
As time went on, the collection grew into hundreds of pieces as Mary Hazel’s travels continued and friends and family picked up on her hobby, sending her nativities from around the globe.
“I have a cousin that is a Catholic missionary priest in Peru, and about 10 or 15 years ago, my mother asked if he would send back a nativity that was indigenous to that area. He sent her back the most beautiful ceramic long neck,” said Maryanne Smith, one of Mary Hazel’s six children. “He had to carry it in a backpack hiking down the Andes to get back to a town where he could put it in the mail. Some of the lengths these nativities have gone through just to find their way to us… It’s amazing.”
The handmade nativity that made its way to Mary Hazel from Peru was broken in route from the post office, but repaired.
“They all have a story,” Smith said. “They’re all catalogued. You can’t imagine the inventory control you have to do on this to get them stored and put out every year.”
And each year at Christmas, Mary Hazel would proudly display her nativities throughout her home, going so far as to adding furniture to her home to hold them all. “She had bookcases built, but still you couldn’t even see them all because there were so many,” Smith said.
“The living room was full, the den was full,” Mary Hazel said. “Maryanne said it was just selfish not to share them.” “In 2009, we convinced her (Mary Hazel) to start putting them on public display,” Smith said.
“The family had been creating the displays, packing and unpacking the nativities, and viewing the end product,” Smith said. “It was a shame that such a beautiful and unique collection should only be seen by a small number of people each year. It needed to be shared. Although it took a little bit of convincing, Mom finally embraced the idea.”
So each year around Thanksgiving, the family sets up her nativities at Goodman Memorial Methodist Church just off US 61. At the first year of the display, there were approximately 200 nativities that all fit in the main room of the church’s Family Life Center. Just as it did in the Weissinger home, the collection has grown into a need for more display cases and rooms at the church. Today, there are about 400 on display.
“When people see the display, they say it’s not at all what they expected,” Smith said. “Some are origami, some are baking sets, others are pillows or ornaments; it’s just every shape, form, and fashion. It could take you hours to go through and see all the ones she has.”
“Some of them are what you’d call ‘whimsical’,” Mary Hazel said. “One of them is a jigsaw puzzle, one is made out of pencil erasers. I’m always looking for anything different, and my friends know I’m interested, so they bring them to me, and that’s added a lot.”
The nativities are on display at Goodman Memorial Methodist Church off US 61 in Cary the first three weekends in December on Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. There is no entry cost to see the nativities.
By Mary Margaret Halford