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St. James Presepio

(From the Times Beacon Record, Volume 41, No. 43, December 22, 2016)

By Irene ruddock

If you are looking for Christmas inspiration, or if you want to see a uniquely Italian art form that is positively inspirational, the Parish Center at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Setauket should be your first stop. The Christmas Crèche, designed by the Rev. Gerald Cestare, affectionately called Fr. Jerry, fills an entire room, complete with a beautiful, cloud-filled, midnight blue sky. “How else would the angels fly to worship the Christ child — or the North star shine to lead the wise men?” asks Cestare. You will discover that his attention to details, like this one, will surprise you. They will also lift your spirits. Cestare, who often stops to make an adjustment to his nativity creation or to speak with the many visitors there, explained. “In Italian, the nativity is called a ‘presepio,’ which means crib. My grandfather, Henry Gioia, started [creating] this old world Neapolitan crèche in his home each year. He filled the entire living room with his depiction of that holy night when Jesus Christ was born. He collected his nativity figures from around the world. He made mountains out of crumbled screen and covered it with plaster, then painted each and covered that with moss. Each of the little houses in the villages were hand-crafted as were the footbridges, pathways, wells, and campfires.” As a child, Cestare was determined to start his own collection and was thrilled to receive the famous Roman Fontanini crèche nativity pieces from his family. He knew in his heart that these pieces would become part of something wonderful as he continued his search for thousands of figures — from all over the world. Collecting from estate sales, antique stores, and donations, the crèche becomes even more authentic by adding water from the Jordan River, Lourdes and Fatima. When you learn that Cestare sprinkles soil from the Holy Land and places a stone from the cave of the nativity in Bethlehem at the foot of his stable, your visit may cease to be a casual observation and become a spiritual Christmas experience. Cestare explains that after more than 25 years of collecting and displaying the nativity to
thousands of people, his grandfather’s legacy — and Christmas gift — lives on. “[My grandfather reminds us] that the nativity was born a teaching tool from Saint Francis and
continues to tell the true story of Christmas today. My prayer is that in the midst of a crazy, commercial and stress-filled world, people will stop for a moment to remember what is truly the greatest story ever told. I thank God and this wonderful Parish of St. James for giving me the opportunity to share my family tradition and I ask God to fill you with joy
and hope this Christmas and always.” All are welcome to view the “Presepio” at the Parish Center of St. James R.C. Church, 429 Route 25A in Setauket. It is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and, if you are lucky, you may catch one of the informative guides who are there several times a day. Be prepared to be awe-inspired and grateful to Cestare for his devotion to his grandfather’s legacy. Perhaps this presepio will be a gift to you too.