A handcrafted Nativity scene has greeted Christmastime visitors to Wilmington’s Rodney Square for decades, thanks to volunteers who have kept the tradition alive.
The practice of having the Nativity depicted in the square was started in 1951 by the late Edward B. Sledz and his fellow Knights of Columbus at St. John the Beloved Parish. Calling the project, “The Committee to Keep Christ in Christmas,” they volunteered their time and raised money to present the crèche in the city’s main square.
The original Nativity set was created by students at the now-closed Brown Vocational School in Wilmington and contained more than 100 pieces that had to be painstakingly assembled each year. It was used until it was destroyed by vandalism in a fire in 1991.
The following year, Sledz grandson, Michael Donovan, a contractor, donated his time and skills to build a new set with materials paid for by donations. Two years ago, he updated the crèche by creating new figures that are lightweight and easier to handle.
Donovan now heads the project. He started out volunteering with his grandfather in his late teens and took over coordinating the project in the early 1980s, when his grandfather entered a nursing home and asked Donovan to keep the tradition going.
Donovan grew up in St. John the Beloved parish and attended the parish school and St. Mark’s High School, and now lives in St. Edmond’s Parish in Lewes, but still keeps connected to the Wilmington tradition.
“I would never let my grandfather down. He asked me to keep it alive as long as I could. It was such a big event in his life, and he put so much into it to make it happen, I know he was so proud. He was very happy that it was alive and still going because he spent so many years keeping it alive and going.”
Donovan and his siblings have done just that, along with help from their friends. The first year, Donovan says he “pressured” some of his contractor friends to help him with the display. Now, more than 25 people are involved with delivery and assembly.
“I’m not even sure if they are all Catholic,” Donovan said, “but this is one thing out of the year that you can tell is rewarding for them. They wouldn’t miss it.”
The crèche goes up about 10-14 days before Christmas, and comes down by December 30 to make room for Wilmington’s First Night New Years Eve activities. Donovan finds the task of putting up the crèche a joyful one. “It’s just way too may laughs, just a great time, a fun time.” He feels it changes a bit every year. “This year’s is the best one we’ve ever built,” he said.
The group is not as formalized as it was during Sledz time, and “The Committee to Keep Christ in Christmas” name is now used only to apply for city permits. Donovan describes the group as more casual now: “One grandson and a group of his buddies.”
The next generation of his family is also involved. Both of Donovan’s sons, who like their father attended St. John the Beloved and St. Mark’s High are part of the assembly team. Kyle Donovan, a recent UD grad, and his younger brother Evan, who will graduate from Wilmington University this year, have “been involved for as long as we can remember,” said Kyle Donovan. He remembers being there after the fire in 1992, although he was very young, and remembers helping out. “All through my childhood, it was always the tradition every year, to help these guys in whatever way we could.
“I know how important it is to my dad, and how important it was to my great grandfather. It meant a lot to him and it means a lot to my dad, and seeing that kind of commitment makes me want to do it.” Kyle said.
If the day ever came when Michael Donovan had to step back from the project, the family tradition would continue. “I know one day my brother Evan and I will take it over, and we look forward to that,” Kyle said.