By Jessica Easthope
A few weeks before Christmas every year, hundreds see a crèche appear at St. Christopher/St. Margaret Mary Church on Staten Island. What they don’t see is what it takes to create it.
The nativity was first built in the church in 1964 by Frank Illuzzi, my grandfather.
“His ability to build things and construct things like this and even things at home was with no training and really no education but he had such intelligence that it was incredible,” said my uncle, Mike Illuzzi, Frank’s son.
Frank started building the creche, which my family affectionately calls “the crib,” when he was 28 years old. He built it for 28 years until he passed away at 56. That’s when my uncle, Mike Illuzzi, took over. He was 28 and has now been building the crib for exactly 28 years.
“It’s just a strange coincidence and it makes you think there’s some connection to our lives and this Christmas crib,” Mike said.
This year the men in my family, including my uncle Mike, cousin Michael and Godson Mikey built the crib for the last time, because soon there will be no more Masses at St. Margaret Mary.
“Unfortunately we’re a parish that’s getting a little bit smaller each year and it’s time to make a very difficult decision to only use one site for the parish,” said Father Joseph McLafferty, pastor of the merged parishes.
Though it’s been in my family for nearly six decades, the tradition started long before that.
“It started with Frank’s mother, Lucia Illuzzi who lived in Bari, Italy. She would create this crèche in her living room, and the whole town at Christmas time would come and see it. She was a fanatic about how it looked,” said my grandmother, Marie Illuzzi.
Part of the family tradition is that every aspect of the crèche — from the structure underneath to the way the paper mountains are painted — were passed down by my grandfather. But that’s not all that was passed down. My Uncle Mike is pretty fanatic about it, too.
“The paper is used to create the effect of the mountain, and I get made fun of because sometimes I’m particular about how people crumple it,” he said.
But that’s because it’s more than just a nativity: for all of us, it is my grandfather.
“There’s nothing on this planet that could ever stop me from building this. I just can’t, it’s like breathing to me,” said Mike.
On the wall next to the crib there’s a plaque, and on it is everything you need to know about my grandfather’s view on faith.
“Faith was in him, after he did the crèche in church that’s all he ever said was, ‘I did it for the man upstairs,’” my grandmother recalled.
The statues that make up the desert scene are old, some are chipped and worn. Individually they’re imperfect, just like the members of our family. But when you look at the big picture, it’s so much more than that.