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STEVENSVILLE – Two years ago at Thanksgiving, Historic St. Mary’s Mission executive director Colleen Meyer’s daughter-in-law brought home a very special gift.

Michelle Meyer is one of those people who love to search out treasures in antique shops wherever she goes.

Sometime before that holiday gathering, she had found a 1958 vintage nativity scene called “The Most Wonderful Story” that was made by the Ideal Toy Co.

“Of course, I remember the Ideal Toy Co.,” Meyer said. “I think I had a doll from the Ideal Toy Co.”

And so when her daughter-in-law presented the gift to her, Meyer decided right then that it was going to become part of the family’s Christmas tradition.

“It’s now become a very special part of our Christmas celebration,” Meyer said.

“The Most Wonderful Story” is one of more than 100 nativity scenes on display at the Historic St. Mary’s Mission through Sunday.

The annual exhibit offers people from Hamilton to Missoula a chance to share their own special memories with the community over a three-day period.

“All of these nativity scenes are very, very personal items for the families who bring them in,” Meyer said. “All of them hold memories for their owners.”

Mission volunteer Carole Page loaned the nativity scene that her mother had received from a close friend years ago.

Every time she takes it out of its box during the holidays, Page can’t help but smile.

“My mother lived in California by the ocean front,” Page said. “Her neighbor was named Judy. They were very fond of each other.”

Judy was a survivor of the Holocaust.

“Every time they would go somewhere, my mother would always introduce her the same way,” Page remembered. “She would say: ‘This is my best friend Judy. She is a Holocaust survivor.

“Whenever I get the nativity scene out, I remember that,” she said. “It makes me chuckle. ... It’s nice to be able to share this nativity scene with the community. This exhibit is really nice that way.”

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For the past five years, the nativity scene exhibit has been the Mission’s part of Stevensville’s annual “A Montana Country Christmas” celebration, held every year on the first Friday and Saturday of December.

In addition, the mission’s nativity scene exhibit will be open between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Sunday.

"For a lot of families, these nativity scenes are part of the Christmas decorations that they've had for all their lives," Johni Cellarius-Steinke said. "Their kids have grown up with them. They are just part of the Christmas."

"For some families, it's about the religious part," she said. "For others, it's about tradition. They are like a special Christmas bulb on the tree. Without them, it wouldn't be Christmas."

That's what makes the once-a-year exhibit so special.

"There's no way that anyone could see this many nativity scenes in one season," Steinke said. "People couldn't afford and who would have the space?"

Historic St. Mary’s Mission and Museum marks the spot of Montana’s earliest white settlement and first Catholic church, dating to 1841. It is now a national historic landmark.

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