This Irish-themed porcelain nativity set is one of over 200 owned by Marist Brother Tom Petitte, on display at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Peabody. “My goal is to help people to focus on the real meaning of what Christmas is all about,” said Brother Petitte. Pilot photo/Jim Lockwood
PEABODY -- It may be cliche, but a gift that Brother Tom Petitte, FSM, received 45 years ago is truly, a “gift that keeps on giving.”
When Brother Tom, a Marist brother, entered religious life, his parents gave him a nativity set as a gift. That “small set” by Fontanini depicted only the Holy Family and a few animals. Since then, that set has grown to over 200 pieces and takes up half of a room in the religious education center at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Peabody.
And that is just the beginning. The gift his parents gave him has spawned an entire collection of nativity sets, an anthology that has grown in the same proportion as that first nativity set that started it all.
“This kicked everything off,” Brother Tom said. “You can see how many gifts it adds up to.”
Today, Brother Tom has over 200 nativity sets from all around the world. Starting last year, the sets were on display during parts of the Advent season at the parish’s religious education center. This year, they were displayed on Dec. 4 to 6, and will remain on display Friday Dec. 11 through Sunday Dec. 13 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“My goal is to help people to focus on the real meaning of what Christmas is all about,” said Brother Tom, currently the pastoral associate at St. Thomas and theology teacher at Malden Catholic High School.
His collection takes up four rooms in the parish’s religious education building, and ranges from pieces small enough to fit in the palm of a hand to some that stand over 4 feet tall. Sets come from six continents, and are made out of a wide range of materials including banana leaves, corn husks, wood, porcelain, pewter, glass and fabric and bear the names of well-known brands of collectibles, including Lenox and Precious Moments. Brother Tom’s collection contains Peanuts figures, as well as animal figurines.
His entire collection came from gifts he has received in nearly five decades of religious life.
“During the years, people would say ‘what do you want for Christmas or your birthday?” Brother Tom said. “I wear a religious habit so I don’t need much at all.”
“This year alone, three people bought me nativity sets,” he added.
Of all the nativities he has, he still regards the set his parents gave him as his favorite.
“That is what started it all,” he said.
Though his nativity figures range in price, Brother Tom says the true value of the collection is priceless.
“The value of the set is not what the prices cost,” he said. “The value of the set is how it brings someone closer to Christ.”