Christmas at St. Lucy's

Beginning in the year 1908-and until his death 64 years later, Louis Penza, an immigrant from Atripalda, Italy, lovingly constructed a magnificent creche and village scene each Christmas season at St. Lucy's Church in Newark's heavily Italian old 1st Ward.

It began as a simple Nativity scene in the wooden building that preceded the present church, and was continued in the Chapel of St. Gerard in the new St. Lucy's that opened in 1926.

The initial handful of figures expanded to more than 100, made from terra cotta and cloth, handcrafted in Naples. Behind the manger, and rising to near the ceiling, sprang a full-blown Old World mountain community complete with cottages, shops, tree-lined cliffs, a waterfall, and villagers bearing gifts along roads leading downhill to the crib of the newborn Christ child.

The detail is amazing. Actual little bottles are arranged on the back wall of one of the shops, a tiny meat grinder sits on the table in the sausage making shop, miniature hams and roasts hang at the butcher's. There are a bakery and cheese shop and a store to sell baskets and a bird cage.

At the center of it all is the stable, with Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, the most prominent features.

The faces of the Neapolitan figures are finely detailed and highly individualized, which is one of the hallmark of the finest collections of the nativity scenes.

This Christmas, as it has for the 33 years since Louis Penza's death in 1972 at 75, the tradition of the elaborate nativity scene in the sanctuary now known as the National Shrine of St. Gerard continues undiminished in the hands of Vincent DiCostanzi, a Newark elementary art teacher.