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Nativity Scene Crèche Set

Nativity scene creche set assembled and used by a Polish-American family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin beginning around 1895.
(Museum accession #2007.100)

Generations of a Polish-American family celebrated the Christmas season by setting up this crèche set in their Milwaukee homes. The original set consisted of approximately twenty pieces of large scale figures depicting the biblical story of the birth of Jesus in the manger. Over the years, family members added more Nativity figures and accessories and created a large scale assemblage combining the tradition of the Christian Nativity scene along with the European putz setting, a folksy, Christmas village scene.

Crèche is the French term for "crib" or "manger," and generally refers to a representation of the birth or birthplace of Jesus using figures. A Christian Nativity scene typically depicts Jesus in a manger, and Joseph and Mary in a barn intended to accommodate farm animals. During Christmas, the scenes are displayed in Catholic and Protestant homes as well as churches and parks.

The main ceramic figures from this crèche set were made in Germany around 1895. The Andrew Gierszewski family purchased them for use during the Christmas season in their Milwaukee home. Additional homemade and commercially produced figures and components were added over the years by Andrew's son, Frank August Gierszewski. Besides the traditional crèche figures, many non-traditional elements, such as windmills, paper maché dwellings, and a variety of animals were added. These new elements were made from metal, composition, plastic, and even homemade materials. The entire compilation became a valued and treasured family heirloom representing the faith of this Milwaukee Polish-American Catholic family.

Andrew Gierszewski (1840-1913) brought his family from the German sector of Poland to Milwaukee in 1886. They were Roman Catholic and had a strong practice of their faith. He and his wife, Marianna Linc (Lintz) Gierszewski (1842-1912), had six children. The youngest child, Frank August Gierszewski (1885-1942), began to expand the Nativity scene at the age of twelve. He presumably added the small lead figures (made in France) first, and then added other figures and elements.

According to the family, Frank added figures to the Nativity scene whenever he could afford it, and ordered additional figures from Germany throughout the years. Frank's Nativity scene had three main kings, but he included many other shepherds, royalty, and other kings whom he thought must also have paid homage. Apparently Frank was not pleased with the log manger which he had built, and he replaced it with the current "brick" structure. Instead of the traditional angel figure, a mount for stork nest was placed on top of the manger. In Poland, stork nests are commonly found on church roofs and other tall buildings, and the White Stork is both a cultural symbol and national bird of Poland.

Following the deaths of his parents, the Nativity scene then belonged to Frank. His family belonged to St. Hedwig Catholic Church on Milwaukee's north side and later to St. Casmir's Church, both of which served Polish-Americans. During the Great Depression, the pastor at St. Casmir's offered to buy the crèche set for $500 for use by the parish, but Frank valued their family's possession more than the offer and did not sell. Following the deaths of Frank and his wife Marie (in 1944), the Nativity scene became the property of their son, Frank Peter Gierszewski, Jr., (1915-1985), who was serving in World War II.

Eventually Frank Jr.'s niece, Nancy L. Wozniak of Brookfield, Wisconsin, inherited the Nativity scene. Nancy recognized the value of the fine, hand-painted figures from Germany, believed that this Nativity scene should be preserved for future generations, and donated the entire set to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

[Source: family history provided by Dr. Mariel Wozniak.]


Posted on December 18, 2008

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