Ellen Ward has served as the Director of Religious Education at Saint Francis of Assisi Church in Ann Arbor for 25 years. And the Living Nativity at Christmas time at Saint Francis has been going on for 25 years as well, a tradition that Ward has played an important role in developing and sustaining.
“I am grateful to have been a part of this tradition from the very beginning,” described Ward. “We are grateful to our current pastor, Father James Conlon, our musicians, and parishioners who work to continue the tradition, including this coming Sunday, Dec. 15 at 5 p.m. when we will again relive and experience the narrative of the birth of Jesus Christ.”
“We have had different animals over the years,” said Ward. “This year, we have sheep, a small cow, donkey, and llamas, standing in proxy of camels.”
Viewing the animals within the beautiful space of the church is a delight to all who attend.
“There is an energy and excitement, especially by the children, of seeing God’s creatures coming into God’s house,” explained Ward. “Our patron Saint Francis of Assisi is known for bringing together the ox and the donkey to re-create the scene of the birth of Jesus Christ in the manger in 1223. We are humbly continuing the tradition of our parish patron. The animals evoke a beauty of creation that resonates deep within the heart and brings to mind that all creation is redeemed by Jesus Christ.”
Saint Francis of Assisi is also known to be the patron saint of animals.
Ward’s duties as the Director of Religious Education are focused on religious education and the spiritual formation of the children of the parish.
Ward, who has lived in Ann Arbor for 35 years, is extremely familiar with the historic tradition of the Nativity.
“The patron of our parish, Saint Francis of Assisi, began the tradition of recreating the Nativity scene using an ox and donkey and a manger full of hay in the year 1223,” detailed Ward. “The original Nativity scene was a living scene. In the first year of my work at St. Francis Church, we — the team — discussed doing the same to bring alive and enter into the experience of that first Christmas when Christ was born.”
She recalls how the re-creation was formed by specific thoughts connected to love and grace.
“The idea was to create an environment where it would be easier for people to enter into the spiritual meaning of the season, the incarnation, when the ‘Word was made flesh,’ when God became one of us, so that we might share in all that God is, eternal life and love.”
Ward noted that she has worked with many others over the years to make the Living Nativity a success, including this year.
“We are especially grateful to our maintenance crew, two of whom, Felipe and Reynaldo, have been with us from the very beginning, and who so graciously helped us in many aspects of preparation, and who stood on clean up duty, with no complaints, about an accident an animal might have in the church building, although these have been very rare, for their many years of dedicated labor and service for all of us.”
The nativity is not only about the animals, of course, but mainly centers upon the Holy Family.
“Every year, one of the parish families, who have had a baby during the year, takes on the role of the Holy Family,” Ward described. “As a community, we are able to share their joy of the new baby as we joyously welcome in our own hearts the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as a newborn baby. The people also enjoy the animals that make up the beauty of the scripture narratives and are, too, a part of God’s creation.”
The entire production includes many elements.
“The Living Nativity and the Advent Carol Service is woven together to tell the story of the birth of Jesus Christ with prayer, using scripture narration, music by an ensemble of musicians and singers from our parish, adults and children lightly acting in the roles of shepherds, angels, kings, and the holy family, and live animals in the tradition of Saint Francis of Assisi,” described Ward. “As the story is told, the donkey follows Joseph, the shepherds naturally bring their sheep, and the kings have their camels, aka llamas, all proceeding into the church. Afterwards, the people walk outside following the luminary lit path to the stable in the warmth of the gym where the entire scene can be behold at leisure. A reception of snacks and drinks follow in the Parish Activities Center.”
I met Ellen Ward when I was hired to teach religious education many years ago at Saint Francis of Assisi Church. She was always extremely affirming and positive about my lessons to promote love, understanding, tolerance, and special holiday and Saint units. I also participated in the Living Nativity and dressed up as a Shepherd and was a part of the nativity with children who also dressed up as Shepherds and Angels. After participating as part of the Nativity in the church, we would hang out with the sheep in a pen outdoors and everyone would come by and pet the sheep. People dressed up as the Three Wise Men and angels as well. I have very fond memories, and as a long-time parishioner of Saint Francis myself, I like to attend Mass and The Living Nativity when I can, especially with my family.