The Baby Jesus is presented at the conclusion of the “Hallelujah Chorus” during Holy Family Parish’s Living Nativity on Sunday, Dec. 3, in Fond du Lac. (Photo by Larry Hanson)

While Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, held its fourth “Living Nativity” on Sunday, Dec. 3, it’s already been around long enough that things are starting to come full circle.

Arthur Dunphy, who played the Baby Jesus in the first performance in 2016, was one of the shepherds for this year’s event.

While the role of Baby Jesus (played this year by six-week-old Elsie Menting) is important, that’s usually not what the audience is talking about following the performances.

The live animals attract a lot of attention, and even one of them had grown into a more prominent role.

The 10-foot camel who came down the main aisle of the church and stood near the altar for the closing portions of the performance was a baby camel that was featured in the initial version of the event.

It was Dunphy’s mother — Holy Family Director of Events Eva Thelen-Dunphy — and his aunt — Elise Winkel, who worked at the parish at the time — who brought the idea of a living Nativity to Holy Family Pastor Fr. Ryan Pruess.

“I was excited,” Fr. Pruess said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us to share the Christmas message and to be able to share the Good News of our Savior’s birth. It was a unique idea, but I knew it would be a big undertaking.”

That undertaking involves more than 100 cast members, including two choirs, and dozens of volunteers. The earnest work toward preparing the performance usually begins in the summer.

Finding a baby and parents to take on the roles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph hasn’t proven difficult, Thelen-Dunphy said.

“We’re a huge parish, so it’s not hard to find a pregnant lady,” Thelen-Dunphy said.

The animals, rented from Glacier Ridge Animal Farm of Van Dyne, are usually secured by Thelen-Dunphy about a year prior to each alternating-year performance.

“We’ve never had any issues,” Fr. Pruess said. “The animals are incredibly well-behaved. It’s an impressive thing when you see the giant camel walking into church toward the end of the performance.”

In addition to the camel, before that, a group of shepherds herd in a group of barn animals, including rams and sheep. After the performance, attendees are able to pet the animals in the lobby of the church and get their photos taken.

The performance began with music from the two choirs and the show continually picks up the pace, starting with the entrance of Joseph (played by Christopher Navis) and Mary (Theresa Menting), up through the high-energy Tribes of Israel dance, the entrance of the Three Wise Men and the “Hallelujah Chorus” finale.

“We really wanted to make it something that could be very prayerful for people, especially having it in the church itself, it was very important to make it part of people’s prayer and to be able to lead them closer to the Lord through the performance,” Fr. Pruess said.

This year’s performance sold more than 900 tickets, the fourth consecutive sellout.

“It just keeps growing,” Thelen-Dunphy said. “It sells out faster and faster each time we do it. People have seen this sort of thing before, but not here, and certainly not to this scale. We have a great time, but the whole point of this is to get people ready for the Christmas season in an interesting way, and bring 900 people into church who maybe haven’t been coming every week.”

After performances in 2016 and 2018, the 2020 event was moved to 2021 and it has now resumed its every-other-year schedule. In the years where there is no Living Nativity, Holy Family hosts its majestic Christmas concert.

“We’ve kept it fresh every year,” Fr. Pruess said. “There’s little changes we’ve made along the way that have helped our performers. For the most part, the retelling of the birth of our Lord doesn’t change much. Thanks be to God.”