A Christmas Treasure in Bethlehem

18th-century Neapolitan Crèche at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT

Situated in what appears to be a typical Connecticut rustic barn along Flanders Road in Bethlehem is a holiday and artistic treasure.

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Victor Amadeus II was crowned king of Sardinia in 1720.  As a coronation gift, he was presented with a Neapolitan crèche, consisting of 68 figures made of wood, terra cotta, porcelain, and jute.  They represent the Christ child, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, the three kings, and Italian villagers.  Their village is made from the bark of cork trees, and gives insight into the activities of those who lived along the Italian coast in the 18th century.

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Following the king’s death in 1732, the crèche was obtained by an Italian noble family, and it made its way to the United States in 1948.  The Abbey  of Regina Laudis was established the previous year, born out of the destruction of World War II.  Mother Benedict Dunn was born Vera Duss in the United States, but lived much of her early life in France.  She spent most of the war in the bell tower of the Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre, from which she watched the advance of George Patton’s liberating United States Third Army.  The kindness and sacrifice of the soldiers led Mother Benedict to establish a foundation in the United States.  The nuns were welcomed to Bethlehem by the artist Lauren Ford, who opened her home to the order until they could find a place of their own.  A local industrialist named Robert Leather donated the 400 acres that today comprise the Abbey.  The crèche was a gift of Loretta Hines Howard, who presented it to the Abbey in 1949, in memory of her husband.

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Several years later, Mrs. Howard donated a similar crèche to the Metropolitan Museum of arts, where it graces their Christmas decorations every December.  The Metropolitan’s curatorial staff was instrumental in the three-year restoration process the Regina Laudis crèche underwent from 2005 to 2008.  The crèche returned to Bethlehem for Christmas 2008 after the figures had been cleaned and repaired, the original 1720 costumes being hand stitched.

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The barn, which itself dates to the 18th century and once belonged to famed local minister Joseph Bellamy, was outfitted with climate control technology to ensure the preservation of the pieces.

To all of those who have taken the time to stop by this blog, a very happy holiday season!

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The Intersection of North and South Streets

A common theme of this blog has been that we can learn a lot more about our historical landscape by getting out of our cars and taking the time to explore our surroundings.  Some things, however, are eminently clear even from behind the wheel of a car.  Most of those reading this post have sat at the red light at the intersection of routes 63 and 202, looking to proceed from North Street to South Street.  It is clear to all motorists that to do so requires a left turn on to West Street, then a right turn on to South Street.  Why are North and South Street not aligned?

An 1814 map of Litchfield, showing the alignment of North and South Streets. From Rachel Carley, Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town

North and South Streets are among the oldest streets in town, and historian Rachel Carley reports that landscaping of these streets began as early as 1771.  An 1814 map records these streets as being “very wide”, while another source states that the streets resembled “long pastures.”  At town meetings in 1771 and 1785, it was decided to straighten North and South Streets.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Litchfield in 1838, and marveled at the width of the streets, and the islands of grass that divided the thoroughfares.  He wrote that “nothing can be neater than the churches and houses” along the two streets.

An alder swamp

This was, however, not always the case.  Alain White, in his history of Litchfield, states that the likely reason for the wide streets was “more for the convenience of the cattle than the delight of residents and strangers.”  White further reports that the awkward alignment of North and South Streets may have been due to an alder swamp along the west side of South Street, which forced that street to be moved a few yards to the east.    However, White also recounts that the zig-zag of the two streets might have been due to the presence of a stately oak, “so beautiful that the settlers laid out North Street … to the west to avoid having to cut it.”  There is a third possibility.  The paths of the two streets follows the crest of the ridge on which they were built.  This was likely the route of the earliest footpaths in town, and it simply may have been more convenient to blaze the roads along the same lines.

There is one other interesting note about the layout of North and South Streets.  It was common in colonial New England town to lay out the streets on the lines of the cardinal directions.  Litchfield is unique only in that those streets – North, South, East, West – have retained their directional names.  However, North Street is not aligned to 0 degrees, but rather to 13 degrees.  This is a result both of the original layout of the street – it was, for whatever reason, not aligned to true north – as well as the fact that magnetic north has moved approximately five degrees to the northeast since they town was laid out in the early 1700s.