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Nativity scene has been at Saint Marys for nearly a century

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Keith Larson and Randy Welter, members of the maintenance staff at St. Marys Hospital, set up a Nativity scene that has been placed in the hospital chapel every year for nearly a century.

Many, many years ago, Sister Mary Joseph Dempsey, Saint Marys Hospital administrator, ordered a creche to be delivered to the hospital.

"She was looking in a magazine one day and she saw this advertised — and forgot," said Sister Antoine Murphy, 97, who remembers speaking in person with Dempsey.

Then one day, Murphy said, "she received a call from the depot agent that there was some freight down there for her — and to send a wagon down to get it."

The year was likely between 1915 and 1918. A horse-drawn wagon was used instead of an automobile.

The creche, Murphy said, was expensive. But Dempsey liked it so much that she kept it.

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"I don't know how she paid for it," Dempsey said. The counter-high plaster-cast scene has been placed in the Saint Marys chapel, at Saint Marys Hospital, every year for decades.

The Franciscan sisters of Rochester have a cherished connection to the scene, as St. Frances of Assisi originated the use of a creche.

Sister Agnola painted a background for the Saint Marys creche in 1939 or 1940, Murphy said. 

In bygone times, Sister Marcia would "put a screen in front of that until Christmas Eve so it would be hidden from the people," she said.

It was part of many cherished traditions at Saint Marys. Sister Barnabus used to make doughnuts and host Christmas parties there.

"She used Pillsbury doughnut flour, but she dressed it up, and her doughnuts were very light and never, ever greasy," Murphy said. The parties grew and evolved and now are held at Mayo Clinic, which took over once the hospitals in Rochester merged with the clinic, in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida.

"And it's all based on those early parties that the sisters had," said Mayo spokesman John Murphy (no relation to Sister Murphy).

Sister Antoine said the pediatrics ward used to face out to the sloping hill that's behind the front wing of Saint Marys along Second Street. A sense of anticipation would build and then "Santa would come skiing down that hill," she said.

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Santa would fall over, spill his bag of presents, regain his footing, slip and slide down the hill, making quite a scene. Then, after a pregnant pause, a second Santa (typically the pediatrician) "would come off the elevator — Ho! Ho! Ho!"

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