A Winnipeg treasure
Kimberley Avenue Christmas nativity scene has long history
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Although his painting career was short-lived, evidence of Ken Mutcher’s artistic talents still graces East Kildonan every Christmas season.
Sixty years ago, Mutcher helped his brothers-in-law Albert Langner and Jake Bay design and build a wooden nativity scene for Grace Lutheran Church, at 211 Kimberley Ave., just east of Henderson Highway.
“I had been painting with oils for about two years and I thought I was becoming a Rembrandt,” Mutcher, 89, recalls with a chuckle.
Led by Albert Langner, the trio cut plywood in the shape of the figures and engineered a mounting system from pipes and rods. Using five colours of oils, Mutcher painted woodgrain on the 2.1-metre-high stable, constructed from five sheets of plywood.
“I think Albert had all the ideas in his head,” explains Mutcher of how his carpenter brother-in-law designed the figures and the three-sided stable featuring a slanted roof.
“There were no blueprints.”
Langner’s son Les recalls his Uncle Jake, who was known for his cartooning skills, drawing and painting the figures and the animals.
Initially displayed inside the church basement, the plywood figures have weathered Winnipeg winters for 60 years, bringing joy and hope to the neighbourhood each winter, says Les Langner, son of Albert Langner.
“It lets the community know that Christmas is here and that it’s the birth of our Saviour, and it’s a time for celebration,” he says of the annual installation of the nativity scene.
Depicting a blue-robed Mary holding the infant Jesus, with Joseph hovering behind, the nearly life-sized scene includes a young shepherd carrying a lamb, the three wise men bearing gifts, a cow and a donkey.
Located just steps from Henderson Highway, the nativity is most visible to drivers and pedestrians travelling east along Kimberley Avenue.
“It is seen by quite a few people who would like (to know) this history,” says Langner of the figures built in 1962 by his dad and uncles. Mutcher is the only surviving member of that trio, so Langner thought it was important to publicly tell the story of the scene’s origins.
The Kimberley Avenue Christmas nativity scene may be less Winnipeg-famous than the three magi riding their camels on the Canada Life building on Osborne Street, but the Holy Family and their visitors have been part of the city’s annual Christmas displays for a decade longer. The magi were first installed in 1973.
Other than some repainting and replacing screws and hinges, the nativity scene at Grace Lutheran Church remains much the same when Albert Langner, Mutcher and Bay completed it in 1962.
Just a schoolboy when his dad initiated the project, Langner now has his own part in the story as a member of the church men’s group which installs it on the church lawn in early December.
The group clears off the snow, pounds in the poles keeping the figures upright, and connects the two spotlights on the stable, which illuminate the scene during dark winter nights.
That process only takes 90 minutes, says Langner, but the group waits for warmer weather to take it down since the poles freeze into the ground over the winter.
The annual installation was interrupted and the figures stayed in storage because public health pandemic guidelines didn’t allow for the men’s group to gather to put them up, says Langner.
The nativity scene — and the memories it invokes of former members — remains important to the congregation’s Christmas celebrations, explains Ron Hermann, council chairperson of Grace Lutheran Church.
“It’s great to see legacy things still have meaning for us and the community,” says Hermann.
As for Mutcher, a resident of Kimberley Avenue for the past 63 years, the plywood nativity scene reminds him of former artistic ambitions and the fun of working on a project with family members.
“I’m pleased to see it,” says Mutcher, who had a long career in retail instead of art.
“We drive by it all the time and it doesn’t hit home that it’s been so long,” adds his wife Sylvia.
The Free Press is committed to covering faith in Manitoba. If you appreciate that coverage, help us do more! Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow us to deepen our reporting about faith in the province. Thanks! BECOME A FAITH JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.