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Bethlehem comes alive in Reading

By Donis Tracy Pilot Correspondent
Posted: 1/2/2009

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A sign on the front steps of St. Agnes Church in Reading points the way to “A Night in Bethlehem” Dec. 20. This is the second year of the exhibit which recreates the experience of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. See story on page 20. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

READING - Outside the wind howled while the first major snowfall of the season blanketed the ground with nearly a foot of snow, but inside St. Agnes in Reading, the birth of Christ came alive.

Markets, bakeries, Jewish homes, inn keepers, shepherds, tax collectors, beggars - all of these were recreated Dec. 19 and 20, as participants of “A Night in Bethlehem” navigated the streets of Bethlehem to take part in the census.

Along the way, participants partook in everyday activities of the time - weaving a basket, grinding wheat with stones to make flour for bread, stringing a small harp - until they came to the final stop in the church garage, where a living nativity scene, complete with singing angels, awaited them.

“The best part is seeing the children’s faces as they take the journey and become completely engrossed in the event...all the hours of planning and cutting and sewing and dying, it’s all worth it,” declared volunteer Amy Staffler, who helped create the costumes.

The event is the brainchild of parishioner Erin Gesmundo, who two years ago came across information for “A Night in Bethlehem” while researching information on a vacation Bible school for the parish. The idea of recreating Bethlehem so that children can experience the birth of Christ struck her, so she asked her pastor, Father Stephen Rock, if the parish could host such an event. He agreed, and the parish hosted their first “Night” last year.

According to Gesmundo, who now serves as the program director, the event was such a success that this year the parish decided to expand the program to include two nights.

“That way those who volunteer one night can also attend with their families the other night,” she explained.

However, adding a second night would also require finding many more volunteers and Gesmundo was unsure she would be able to find them. She needn’t have worried: over 350 parishioners volunteered help to put on “A Night in Bethlehem.”

“My favorite part about ‘A Night in Bethlehem’ is the draw created in the community - so much interest, by so many people of so many ages and the chance to see many of them and share the spirit of Jesus’ birth,” noted volunteer Martha Jane Gagnon, who is part of the finance committee for the event.

This desire to share the spirit of Jesus’ birth with others has led the organizers of the event at St. Agnes to hold an informational meeting for any parish wishing to bring “A Night in Bethlehem” to their own parish. The meeting will be held at the St. Agnes Parish Center on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.

Gesmundo noted that “A Night in Bethlehem” can be a valuable tool for parishes looking to expand their methods of evangelization.

“So many families came last year for the experience, but then began coming again regularly to Mass. It’s a non-threatening way to invite one’s neighbors to church and then to invite them back,” she said.

Meanwhile, the organizing team at St. Agnes is already looking to next year’s “A Night in Bethlehem.” Planning will begin in early January, and fundraising is held throughout the year in order to keep the event free of charge.

“The spirit of Bethlehem lives in our parish throughout the year,” said parishioner and volunteer Janet Davidson-Dee.

For more information about “A Night in Bethlehem,” email Erin Gesmundo at