When Mary Gilmore looks at the interior walls of Christ the King Catholic Church, she sees size, space and not much else.
Gilmore is a “semiretired” sculptor, potter and painter, and those bare walls bother her.
“When you’re an artist, you’re always looking at how you can improve things, and you notice every little thing that’s out of place. Nothing can ever be perfect,” said Gilmore, a longtime parishioner.
Out of such discontent a one-of-a-kind Nativity is born.
Starting Sunday, the advent of Advent season, the congregation of the church on Missoula’s Gerald Avenue will feast its eyes on the first of five quilted hangings, each 11 1/2 feet long and this one 7 feet wide.
It’s Gilmore’s vision of the Christmas manger scene, hung on a wall on the left side of the church. Mary and Joseph, almost life-sized, stand near a vacant cradle of straw.
Come Christmas, the hanging will assume a central place on the wall behind the altar, thanks to a pulley system and what Gilmore called the “magic ladder” manned by her husband Roy and Richard Bishop, the parish’s liturgy coordinator, music ministry director and all-around handyman.
A fabric baby Jesus will be Velcroed onto the cradle by children on Christmas Eve.
At the same time, the Three Wise Men – each appliquéd, bejeweled and stitched onto a painted 42-inch bolt of fabric of his own – will pop up on the right side. A shepherd, replete with staff and two white sheep, will appear on the east wall.
By Jan. 6, Epiphany Sunday, the Wise Men and shepherd will be flanking the Holy Family.
The figures are long and graceful – a nod, Gilmore said, to the sanctuary’s soaring architecture and high-beamed ceiling that “tends to swallow small décor items.”
“A lot of the (Nativity figures) you see on the Internet look like little country bumpkins – you know, the roly-poly caricature types,” she said. “These are still the caricature type, but our church needed tall and thin.”
Each is faceless – an invitation for beholders to imagine the features for themselves.
A diverse crew of nine workers dubbed the “Sweat Shop Team” took on the daunting project last winter, not all of them parishioners or even Catholics.
“This was really kind of Mary’s brainchild, her idea, her dream, and she saw it through to execution as well,” said Father Jeff Fleming, pastor of Christ the King Parish. “And she had a group of other dedicated people to help make it happen.”
Judy Kelly helped Gilmore hatch the plan about this time last year, when the church’s more traditional Nativity was a topic of discussion. It was, in their estimation, inadequate for such a big church.
A hanging Nativity was “a dream I’ve had and I’ve had it for a long time,” Gilmore said. “I’ve painted fabric, but I’ve never appliquéd. When Judy explained it to me I said, ‘Oh, it’s like dressing paper dolls.’ And it was.”
It took Gilmore less than an hour to sketch small versions of the six figures. Fleming, the pastor, not only gave his approval, but dedicated $800 left to the church in memory of James Wilke, a longtime parishioner who died last year.
A tribute to Wilke and the names of those who worked on the project is stitched on the back side of the main quilt.
The original work crew consisted of the Gilmores and Kelly; Bev Vannatta; Edna Kinsella, a parishoner and member of the ecumenical Martha Sewing Ministry that’s based at Christ the King; and experienced quilters Anne Gustafson and Sandy Aldegarie. Larry and Diane Peterson joined in later at the Thursday work sessions/potlucks that continued through the summer and beyond with only a handful of interruptions.
Christ the King opened its doors in 1966 to serve University of Montana students and faculty. It was a “modern” church built in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, when sacred images and adornments in Catholic churches tended to be de-emphasized, Fleming said.
Hence, the plain walls that drive Mary Gilmore to distraction.
That said, she points to treasured art pieces at the church, including a baptismal font designed by Rudy Autio and three large embossed sculptures in relief at the entry by the late Walter Hook.
“We also have our little chapel which has some really wonderful stained glass work,” Gilmore said.
Much of the quilt work was done in the downstairs center, where there was room to spread out.
The quilt work was finished by August, and then began the laborious job of stitching the pieces together. Most of it was done by hand, a task not to be taken lightly, considering there was more than 150 feet of border. Gilmore and Vannatta added color with paint.
The Sweat Shop Team looked up one September evening and discovered they were finished, two full months earlier than they’d anticipated.
“In fact we questioned whether we could have all five pieces done for Christmas 2012,” Gilmore and Kelly wrote in a PowerPoint presentation.
Now they wait with childlike anticipation for Dec. 24, the night children of the parish will place a baby in his manger.
“I think it’s a great story,” Gilmore said. “We’ve become so materialistic, and I think our children are losing the whole idea of Christmas, and the story of the Bible. Jesus doesn’t arrive until Christmas, and the Wise Men and the shepherd travel there to see him.”
This year, a pulley system and magic ladder will assure it at Christ the King.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.