NEW LONDON, Wis. — Every Christmas season, Verna Bechard’s home is transformed into a gallery of Nativity sets.This Nativity set is one of 193 Verna Bechard displays in her New London home. She purchased her first set for her mother in 1950 to replace an older one. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

Scenes of the first Christmas in Bethlehem fill nearly every curio cabinet, coffee table, mantel, window sill, hutch and cupboard in her spacious New London home. Today the collection of Nativity sets numbers 193, with 30 from foreign countries.

Bechard purchased the first set in 1950 to replace one her mother owned.

“It was (made of) painted plaster of Paris and the creche itself was made out of cardboard. I figured it was old and thought we should have a new one,” she said. Twenty-two years later, she bought a second one in Las Vegas.

She explained she was there with her husband, Dick, who was attending a convention. “I went to the gift shop at the hotel we were at and I saw this Nativity set,” she said. “I thought, oh my kids would really like that (but) I couldn’t afford to buy it.”

So she went to play a nickel slot machine and hit a jackpot. “I went right down to the gift shop and bought it.”

After that, the collection just started to grow.

“One here and one there,” she told The Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay Diocese. “Whenever my husband and I would go anywhere, I would buy one. The kids, after they were out of college and working, every Christmas they would come with new ones. It just kind of got out of hand.”

The Nativity sets come in all shapes and sizes and are made of a variety of materials, such as glass, ceramic, cloth, plastic, pewter, wood, coconut shell and corn stalk.

On her 45th wedding anniversary, Bechard’s siblings bought her a Thomas Kinkade Nativity set. She also has a small Christmas tree that hangs on a wall decorated with Nativity ornaments, many given to her by grandchildren. “Those are not counted” as part of the 193 Nativity sets, she added. Nor are the Nativity pillows, paintings or artwork given to her.

Bechard taught second-grade religious education for 46 years, first at St. Bernadette Parish in Appleton, then at St. Joseph Parish in Menominee, where Dick took a job with American Family Insurance as a district manager in 1976, and then at Most Precious Blood Parish in New London, where they moved in 1991 to be closer to family. Bechard said she has received small Nativity sets as Christmas gifts from parish children she taught.

Verna and Dick, who died Nov. 9, 2011, celebrated their 50th anniversary Aug. 6, 2010. As a surprise, their seven children and 15 grandchildren held a party at the New London country club. All of the grandchildren dressed as characters from the first Christmas – animals, angels, Wise Men, shepherds and the Holy Family. It was a living Nativity that Bechard will never forget.

Last Christmas, her daughter-in-law, Kathy Bechard, photographed every Nativity set and created eight photo albums, one for Verna and one for each of her children.

Bechard enjoys sharing the collection with others.

“A lot of people have come through to see them,” she said. “I always have the kids from the Catholic school come through. This year it’s going to be the kindergarteners and first graders coming next week.”

Bechard said her favorite sets include a glass set; the one she bought for her mother; and the original one her mother owned from the late 1930s.

“I would say the one from my mother would have special meaning – after I decided it wasn’t so bad,” added Bechard.

Lucero is the news and information manager at The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis.