Nativity scene 1996.
A view of the Arches and the Nativity scene lighted for Christmas, 1996.

Tales from the Archives: The Outdoor Nativity Scene

Seeing the Nativity scene perched atop the Arches brings warm holiday memories to many members of the St. Thomas community. Ever wonder when this tradition was started?

The first documented “Christmas crib” was erected in 1948 by the Christophori Club, a student group formed to promote Catholic thought and action. Dr. Hugo Reny, a professor of psychology and art at St. Thomas, was enlisted to paint figures of the Christ child, the Virgin Mary and Joseph on plywood boards for the display. The scene was placed under a makeshift canvas-covered stable on the lower quad near where the Arches joined Aquinas Hall and Albertus Magnus Hall (now the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts). When the holiday vacation began, the scene was moved in front of the college sign at the corner of Summit and Cleveland avenues for community members to enjoy.

In 1950, a new home was constructed to provide a more protected space for the Nativity scene. At the same time, the display was moved from the quad to the veranda in front of Aquinas Hall. When illuminated, it could be seen by all those passing the campus on Summit Avenue.

By the early 1980s, Reny’s simple figures were gone, replaced by a more elaborate display, mounted atop the Arches each holiday season by members of the Physical Plant. When the first tree lighting ceremony was held at the Arches in 1997, the outdoor Nativity scene had become a fixture of the holiday season at St. Thomas.