Nativity Builds a New Church and Hall
During his tenure as pastor to The Church of the Nativity, while encouraging vocations and nurturing ministries, Father Thuer had also been concerned with the lack of space in the Bethlehem church. His transfer in 1988 prevented fulfillment of his dream of a new church. Fortunately, his parting words, “I just hope you will keep the idea of a new church alive," to his replacement, Father Dery, were not forgotten.
Father Henry R. Dery was ordained as a member of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers on May 22, 1948, and was then sent to the Angelicum University in Pome for two years of further study. When he returned he taught courses in Sacred Theology at St. Joseph's Major Seminary in Cleveland. Three years later he was assigned to the Eymard Preparatory Seminary in Hyde Park, New York. During his fifteen-year tenure here he never shied away from the burden of increasing responsibilities, becoming the Rector in 1962. When the need for pastoral ministers became more pressing, Father Dery responded to diocesan exigencies by accepting the pastorate of St. Charles in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After many happy and fruitful years in this ministry, an old friend, Archbishop Whealon, invited him to work in the Archdiocese of Hartford. He was incardinated within two years, serving at St. Joseph's in Bristol and St. Jerome's in New Britain. In 1988, by direct appointment of the Archbishop, he was named pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Though Father Dery's appointment as pastor did not specify responsibility for building a new church, the hazardous conditions and disrepair within the Nativity Church, along with the lamentable lack of space, made the construction of a new building of paramount importance. The treasured old church had fulfilled its mission. From the beginning, Father Dery, seasoned by the rigors of long years of missionary work in the American Southwest, seemed more than fit for such a strenuous undertaking. His warm love for his parishioners and his zealous dedication to parish ministry were to make him strong and steadfast in the task ahead. He had accepted his appointment with the words of Archbishop Whealon ringing in his ears: "For your last years of active ministry I want to appoint you to a parish from which you will have a storehouse of fond memories." The building of the new Church and the outpouring of enthusiasm and sacrifice from the parishioners in response to the pastor's needs will surely stand out in this storehouse of memories promised by Archbishop Whealon.
Father Dery led the parish in the construction of a new church on the site of the rectory, which was lifted off its foundation and moved to its present site. The design of the new church was that of a rustic stable reflecting Christ's birth in Bethlehem of Judea. Its architect was the late John Clark of Hyde Park, N.Y., who wanted to reflect the character of Bethlehem and use a balance of the old and the new in his design.
Built of vertical planking painted a traditional barn red, and accented by pillars of stone gathered from the church property and a life-size nativity scene carved from one enormous Maine pine tree in the foyer, the church is topped by a glass dome that frames a figure of the Risen Christ and provides a view of a modern exterior gold-toned star. Inside, blue beams create an open grid-work reminiscent of Connecticut's classic barn construction. The Shupenis family of Bethlehem donated the cherry altar. The pulpit is a tau cross crafted by parishioner Wally Butkus. Braced by “stone walls” representative of the countryside, the modern stained-glass windows have a flowing design evoking the hills and meadows that encompass Bethlehem.
Father Edward Kacerguis, a native son of Bethlehem and of the Church of the Nativity, assumed responsibility for handling many of the details involved in the dedication of the new church. He also helped arrange the Liturgy of Dedication and, as a gift to the parish, printed the program for the dedication ceremony. Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin dedicated the new church on October 11, 1992.
Rev. Richard L. Shellman became the fourth pastor of Nativity parish on June 1, 1994, following Father Dery’s retirement. A native of New London, CT, Father Shellman was what some in the Church call a “second career” priest. Married to his wife Dolores for 21 years, and with two children, he was a pharmacist. When Dolores became ill, he helped tend to her needs three times a week while she was a long-time patient at Hartford Hospital. She died in February 1978.
During his wife's infirmity, the future Father Shellman increased his church attendance, eventually becoming a lector, and then a Eucharistic minister. At the age of 45, he contacted the vocations office at the Archdiocese of Hartford. Archbishop John Whealon helped him confirm his vocation. After completing studies for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Father Shellman was ordained in 1986. He told a newspaper reporter that he had switched from healing bodies to healing souls. He served for eight years at a parish in South Windsor before coming to Bethlehem.
As pastor of Nativity parish, Father Shellman described his style as being present, approachable, and available to the members of his parish. One of his first goals was to pay off the debt from the construction of the new church, so that a new parish center for religious education classes, church events, and community meetings could be built.
Bishop Christie A. Macaluso dedicated the new Parish Hall and Religious Education Center on April 22, 2001. Measuring 6,048 square feet, it includes a hall, a full-service kitchen/pantry, six classrooms, lavatories, and storage rooms. In a 2007 newspaper article, Father Shellman modestly confessed that some anonymous donors and their significant contributions helped make it all happen.
Father Shellman's other contribution to the Nativity parish was his establishment of a Sunday children's Mass at 10:00 a.m. Children participated in the entrance procession, the readings, and in taking up the collection at this Mass each Sunday. After the Gospel reading, a bell was rung, inviting children to sit at the altar for a special children's homily. The children's homilies often featured props, dramatizations, prayers, and demonstrations that were not typically part of a regular Sunday Mass.
Father Shellman retired on July 1, 2007. The Nativity Council #13266 of the Knights of Columbus established a scholarship in his name. Miss Mary Caires, a Nonnewaug High School senior, became the first scholarship recipient in 2009.