Guidelines could prove last straw for church cribs
Hard on the heels of the pope controversially questioning the biblical basis for having donkeys and oxen in Nativity scenes, the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin has issued new guidelines to its priests that could prove the last straw for the traditional church crib.
St Patrick’s Church in Wicklow town suffered significant damage on December 20th when its crib was set on fire.
As a consequence, the archdiocese sent an email to every parish, stating: “as a precautionary measure, our insurers advise that all straw bedding be removed as soon as is practically possible”.
St Patrick’s, which was built in the 1840s, was the second church to have its straw crib set on fire this year. On January 2nd, St Catherine of Alexandria Church on Meath Street in the Liberties area of Dublin was devastated in a suspected arson attack.
The original fire caused relatively little damage but the fumes caused an explosion which damaged the roof, stained-glass windows and the organ, resulting in a repair bill that could reach €5 million.
While most of this was covered by insurance, the parish still has to raise €150,000. Most of the crib figures were destroyed, but those of the baby Jesus, which is believed to date from the 1850s, and the Virgin Mary survived, despite some smoke damage. It is hoped St Catherine’s will reopen by next Christmas.
“I wouldn’t be putting straw into the crib again,” said Fr Niall Coghlan of St Catherine’s, “unless it could be treated in some way to stop it going up like a fireball.”
The blaze at St Patrick’s in Wicklow town destroyed the 100-year-old plaster figures in the crib, burnt the wall behind the Christmas scene, and destroyed a window. The rest of the church suffered smoke and water damage.
Parish priest Fr Donal Roche was blessed with an army of helpers to ensure the church was repaired in time for Christmas Day.
“The crib is back up again but without any straw,” he said, “and I know from talking to a lot of colleagues that they are removing the straw from their churches as well.”
Damian O’Neill, a spokesman for Allianz, which insures most Catholic churches, confirmed that the insurer had not withdrawn cover for churches with traditional straw cribs.
“We deal constantly with risk management and offer advice, but churches are sacred places and the people who have responsibility for them take the risks very seriously.”
Ballymore Eustace parish is considering replacing straw with dampened woodchips, while Blackrock parish now uses gravel.
Fr Patrick McKinley, of Brookfield parish, Tallaght, said: “We didn’t have very much notice so we have had to replace the straw with straw-coloured carpet and scattered straw outside.”
A straw poll of priests in the archdiocese conducted by The Irish Times suggested that while a majority had removed the straw from their cribs, a minority were sticking to the tradition, while emphasising their security precautions. As Pope Benedict accepted in his book on the Nativity, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, tradition trumps the Gospel truth. “No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey.”
Similarly, some churches seem determined to keep faith with the straw in their mangers.
For details on the St Catherine’s restoration project, visit meathstreetparish.ie