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Matthew Powell, O.P.
Author of "The Christmas Crèche, Treasure of Faith, Art & Theater"
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"This collection of paper expresses so much about my life," says the author of The Christmas Crèche, Treasure of Faith, Art & Theater—Matthew Powell, O.P., and the Manger Scene (Whitman, 1963) that he cut out and assembled.
You walk onto the campus of Providence college, and you don't just enter academe—you enter the world of Father Matthew Powell—Priest, author, college teacher, and collector of crèches that, he says, express so much about his life…

Saint Francis of Assisi may have begun the crèche tradition, says Father Matthew, but Saint Cajetan popularized it. (Matthew Powell, O.P., collection)
A world of prayer, teaching, writing—and crèches

Everywhere you look, beautiful crèches and treasured icons draw you near. The leafy campus mutes the cacophony of the outside world, and all you can hear is the sweet melody from a toy theater music box.

"It's playing Mille Cherubini in Coro ('A Thousand Cherubs in the Choir'), an Italian Christmas song," Father Matthew says . "I got it in Florence about 15 years ago, because of my love of theater, Comedia del Arte, and Arlequino [Harlequin] figures."

Father Matthew, wearing his clerical collar, a gray sweater, and round-rimmed glasses sits in an easy chair, a blue-and-white mola pillow under his elbow. From a nearby stand, he picks up a paper crèche that he cut out and assembled and says, "for me, a crèche brings together my faith; my love of art; of beauty; and my love of doing things with my hands—I just finished making a little cart for my three-dimensional nativity scene that I keep up all year round."

An icon of the Virgin and Child from Russia adds a precious gold, silver, and enamel layer to the traditional Byzantine image. (Matthew Powell, O.P., collection)
Father Matthew has also been making some other additions: "I've always wanted running water," he says, smiling, "but it kept leaking, so I could never turn it on. But this year I conquered it, and I have a little fountain that actually works.

"And since the stucco I got from a railroad catalog kept flaking off, I experimented and invented my own—cream-colored acrylic paint mixed with aquarium sand. You apply it with a brush, and it dries hard as a rock. Now I have to add these nice Italian roof tiles. You have to glue them one at a time, but they look very nice.

"I'm always looking for little accessories for my crèche. I found a lady in Genoa who makes tiny little sausages and salamis, so they're hanging from the rafters of the stable I made along with little cheeses."

A toy theater from Florence, a testament to Father Matthew's love of the theater. (Matthew Powell, O.P., collection)
Spoken like a true enthusiast. But that's just one of the many nouns that describe this priest of the Order of Preachers (more commonly known as Dominicans). Father Matthew is also the author of the prodigious The Christmas Crèche: Treasure of Faith, Art, and Theater (Pauline Books & Media, Boston) a glossy coffee-table book that is considered the definitive study of the nativity in the last 50 years.

He also teaches dramatic literature courses, theater history, and oral interpretation at Providence College, an institution of higher learning that proudly proclaims its "Catholic & Dominican" identity.

Father Matthew lives in one of the school's apartment complexes surrounded by acres of green. But inside his apartment what catches your eye is the silver and gold of his incredibly beautiful Russian icons. "In religious art," Father Matthew says, "I look for two things: is it religious? And, is it art? Sometimes I'll find so-called religious art that may have a religious theme, but do not accomplish their mission. These icons are beautiful, but they also do what they are supposed to— draw me to Christ."

He's holding the Manger Scene (Whitman, 1963) as he says, "this collection of paper, this paper nativity sums up so much of my life: my faith; my love of art; my love of the theater; my love of doing things with my hands. I also have a lot of the peasant in me, and so this is a crèche I cut out and put together. Amazing, isn't it, that all these little pieces of paper express so much about my life?

The 1963 punch-out Manger Scene (Whitman) that Father Matthew cut-out and assembled.
"This fascination with nativities began in my childhood: with my storybooks; my love of reading; my love of drawing; my love of paper. The paper crèches really fascinate me, because it never ceases to amaze me what you can do with paper, the beautiful things that people can make with it.

"The research I've done indicates that the paper nativity came out of the poor people who had very little money and couldn't afford hand-carved nativities. And, I suppose, part of my fascination, too, is my blue-collar, immigrant roots: these are the nativities of the poor who were able to create beautiful things out of paper. Is there a material cheaper than paper? You had these simple printed nativity sheets, probably first in black-and-white, that had to be hand-colored, then in color.
It's interesting, though, that these things that used to be so cheap are now found on second-hand bookstores and auction sites for hundreds of dollars."



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Father Matthew Powell


The paper nativity came out of the poor people who had very little money and couldn't afford hand-carved nativities.

And, I suppose, part of my fascination, too, is my blue-collar, immigrant roots: these are the nativities of the poor, who were able to create beautiful things out of paper.




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