EDINA, Minn. (OSV News) — Father Allen Kuss has been collecting Italian-made Fontanini Nativity scene figurines for the last 44 years. After amassing more than 650 of them, he decided in 2022 that it was time to put them on display.
Father Kuss, 66, pastor of St. Patrick in Edina, wanted to arrange all of them in a depiction of the Holy Land region, complete with landscape and buildings, including the temple in Jerusalem. He knew it would be a huge task, one he did not want to do by himself. In 2022, he happened to meet a retired medical illustrator, Don Keller, whose accomplishments over the last 40 years include creating a walk-through replica of the human eyeball with a diameter of 10 feet.
Father Kuss decided to ask Keller, 75 — who belongs to Our Lady of Grace in Edina but also comes to St. Patrick for various functions, including Mass — if he would be interested in helping design and build what Father Kuss calls a diorama. Keller said yes, and the two began work last year on a scene depicting Bethlehem and the surrounding region. The scene is laid out on a disk that is 20 feet in diameter. Moved up from their workroom in the church basement to the main church, it opened for public viewing Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and will be on display until Feb. 28.
Managing the project
The two worked steadily for about 14 months, spending more than 1,000 hours on the project with the help of about 12 volunteers. They used simple materials to create the landscape — polyurethane foam, Styrofoam and burlap — and more than 700 feet of wire for 1,250 LED lights to illuminate the scene. The final touch was hand painting the landscape, buildings and other features of the 310-square-foot diorama.
Contained within this landscape, but not prominently positioned, is the Nativity scene. This approach is designed to help viewers see Jesus, Mary and Joseph as part of a busy and bustling city of Bethlehem that would have been filled with many people at the time Jesus was born due to the census taking place by order of the Roman emperor.
“My intention here is to get people to think not just of the baby Jesus, but what impact does that event have in the lives of these people, these characters — and in your life?” said Father Kuss, who has been to the Holy Land twice, including a monthlong trip while he was on the faculty of St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul.
More than a year of building the diorama has the two principal architects themselves reflecting on the Nativity and its impact on their lives.
“I’m feeling it every day,” Keller told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “I sit back and look at this (diorama) and I think, ‘These people were at the well, they were doing things, and 500 yards away, Christ was being born. They didn’t even know it.’ And, hopefully, that’s what people are going to think about when they look at this. And, to be a part of that, as an artist, is a privilege.”
Father Kuss and Keller placed three iPads around the diorama containing photos of various portions and two or three sentences of explanation with each photo so that viewers can learn more about what they’re seeing.
Father Kuss hopes to store the diorama and put it up for display again next year. He plans to invite clergy of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, all the way up to Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda, to come and see it, along with other parishes and even Protestant churches in the area. He hopes all who come are as moved by it as he has been while putting it together.
“When I see this, I’m overwhelmed,” Father Kuss said. “I’m overwhelmed at the beauty of it. It’s gorgeous — the creativity, the painting that Don has done. … I’m amazed at all of the detail and how well it is able to convey the story.”
Dave Hrbacek is senior content specialist for The Catholic Spirit, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.