"A Husband's Labor of Love to House God's Gift of Love"
Monroe was a graduate of what is now the University of North Texas, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Technology. A man of many talents, he decided to build a special building for his wife where her collection could be displayed and shared with those who would be interested. By doing so, he could reclaim his domain, and his home would again become just a home instead of a display of dust-catchers. When he presented the possibility of having a gallery of her own, Judy was delighted........a dream beyond her wildest hopes was suddenly within reach.
From her savings she offered to hire the job done, but Monroe would not even consider doing such an unnecessary thing when he was perfectly capable of doing the job himself. Living on the farm, he had certainly built enough barns and feed troughs and corrals and assorted out-buildings around the place....a little gallery in the corner of the yard would be a chance to express himself while earning much favor from his bride of many years.
In August, 1999, the labor of love began, just after Monroe’s sixty-ninth birthday. First he built the forms for the 18’ X 30’ concrete foundation, appropriately reinforced atop a newly leveled area in the southeast corner of their country yard. It was the same corner of the yard where their two children, Miriam and Aaron, played in their sandbox a quarter of a century earlier…the same area where Monroe’s grandparents, Jacob and Elizabeth Trietsch, had lived after uprooting their lives in their homeland of Germany to come to America, settling in Denton County in the late 1800’s with other kinsmen and countrymen in the German community of Blue Mound.
A retired neighbor and good friend, Jack Knapp, came to help Monroe with building the framework of the building which soon took shape within a month or so. It was during that time that both men were blessed with the births of grandsons. Jack developed some health problems and had to leave the remainder of building to Monroe. It was amazing how creative a man could get to accomplish a task when there was no one else around to help. Rest assured that he made many, many trips up and down the ladder. Hammers were everywhere so that one was always within reach. And while Judy was at work in Denton during the day, the “tap, tap, tap, tap” of the hammers echoed across the rolling pastureland of the neighboring farms. Monroe’s Hereford cattle came to the fence and offered their “moos” of encouragement as they kept him company.
That carpenter-husband of Judy’s was very methodical as he plodded along on his own. Jack would come to visit and check on progress. Cousin Elmer would come by to chat, providing opportunity for fellowship and a break. Slowly the labor of love progressed and Judy could hardly wait.
Walls went up; trusses were hoisted; decking was put into place and the roofer came. A building was built that offered so much more protection and warmth and comfort than God’s Holy Family had in that little stable two thousand years ago in the real Bethlehem, the Bethlehem of Judea where Joseph and Mary had gone to be registered and counted.
Spring came in Denton County in 2000 and progress slowed as Monroe had farming and crops to tend. Judy was able to help more as evening daylight lengthened. She sanded and painted trim work; she detailed an elaborate system of lighting; she installed carpet on the walls to add texture and to absorb sound. She was always on the lookout for shelving ideas and was soon looking at store displays with an entirely new perspective.
Doors of leaded glass with beveled edges were hung at the entrance and a fifteen-panel garden door was put into place inside. Stained glass and suncatchers would be hung in each panel of the garden door, allowing the panels to serve as frames for them. Meanwhile, Monroe was still working outside adding to the charm of the building with his finishing touches characteristic of his eye for detail. A unit for heating and cooling was installed with a custom-designed duct system. For any problem that arose, Monroe worked out a unique solution. He has the gift of insight: that gift of being able to visualize a project or details, and then the ability and skill to make it happen.
So many of the Nativities had been packed away, seen only in the photos of the detailed inventory Judy kept. It was important to record the “when and from whom and where” each ornament or figurine or set had come. As the collection increased in number, the album of inventory photos increased until even a three-inch ring binder was no longer adequate.
Because the nature of the collection was seasonal, display time was short in the earlier days of the collection when they could be shared with friends or family. Judy realized in the early 1980’s that a Christmas tree decorated with Nativity ornaments would be an excellent way to share them with her church family. Year after year on the weekend after Thanksgiving, just a couple of miles down the road and beside the busy Interstate-35 highway, hundreds of Nativity ornaments would lovingly be placed on the Christmas tree in the Fellowship Hall of Blue Mound United Methodist Church. Sometimes friends would help decorate or undecorate the tree, enjoying the many stories and histories that accompanied the ornaments.
As the century ended, so did a tradition. 1999 was the last year the Nativity Tree would be displayed at the church. The tree would finally have a year-round, permanent home. By the time the pumpkins of Halloween 2000 had been scooped and carved, the carpet was installed on Bethlehem’s floor, the last baseboard was painted and put into place, and glass shelves had been cleaned and polished. Then began the monumental task of “moving in”. As each piece was carefully unpacked and checked off the master list, it was gently cleaned and given careful inspection for any damage or needed repair. Those going into ‘Mimi’s Corner” were documented first because they were extra special, bringing more love to this little Bethlehem.
Judy’s mother, Mitze (“Mimi” to her grandchildren) also collected Nativities. Gifts of Nativities were exchanged at Christmas and birthdays, always with the hope of not duplicating. When the family discovered that non-Hodgkins Lymphoma had invaded Mimi’s system, it was too late for treatment to be successful. She died early in 1998, just a few months before the conception of Bethlehem. Oh, how she would have loved Bethlehem! Judy inherited her mother’s collection of nearly 300 and dedicated a special nook for their display. Understandably, “Mimi’s Corner” became one of her favorite areas in the gallery.
As the shelves and diaplays began to fill, Judy’s daughter Miriam began to wonder if there would be room for all of the Nativities. No one knew for sure, but Judy just had faith. Nearly every detail of planning had worked out perfectly. Judy felt that God had approved the project and was fitting all the pieces together for her. When shelves had been placed without knowing how many of each depth would be needed where, only one had to be moved, and then moved up only one notch on the brackets.
Ornaments were saved for last because their space was already reserved. A large tree would stand before the window by the main door and eventually display nearly 800 Nativity ornaments. Two smaller trees would be themed by color. One, the Majesty Tree, would be a 4-ft. tree decorated only with gold and brass ornaments, covered with finely spun, golden angel hair shimmering in the lights, and topped with a golden crown for the King of Kings. The golden color would represent the majesty of our Lord. The other, the Tree of Light, would be a 3-ft. tree decorated with crystal and spun-glass ornaments and wisps of silvery angel hair. The white look of the clear lights would represent the purity of our Lord.
Two large grapevine spirals would hang over free-standing shelves that flanked a lighted hutch displaying the treasures of Gorham crystal, Lenox china, Avon porcelain, Princess House crystal, 24-k gold and more. On a shelf underneath the hutch would be a Children’s Corner with soft-sculpture sets and shakers and puzzles, all meant to be played with by little visitors. With so much that was all “no touch”, the children needed some “touchables” they could play with while their parents looked at the others.
As the shelves began to fill, Monroe was amazed that a mother, father and
baby could be portrayed in so many different ways. More than 1800
and no two alike! They were like snowflakes……each one so different;
each one so unique; each one so special. There were Nativities
made of crystal, lace, beads, porcelain, pottery, volcano ash, clay, various
metals, fabric, corn shucks, acrylic, resin, banana bark, plaster, straw,
wood, stained glass, wax, lace, marble, paper, plastic, needlepoint, cross-stitch,
crochet and more.
They had come from Mexico, Peru, Native America, Israel, Kenya, Nairobi, Laos, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Ecuador, U.S. Navy ship, Czech Republic, Ireland, Caribbean, Russia, Bangladesh, Alaska, Hawaii, Mt. St. Helen, Austria, El Salvador, Columbia, Switzerland, Germany, Bethlehem and other areas. They had come from friends, relatives, employees, parents, and children, and many purchased by Judy herself.
They were lighted, musical, rotating, talking, huggable, serious, whimsical, and puzzles. Some just sat there and did absolutely nothing. Some had kings and shepherds, some had angels, some had domestic animals and some had animals of the wild. Some families were bears , some were mice, some were snowmen; some looked Old English, some were all angels. There were candles and mugs, plates and spoons, stockings and tree skirts, some families were tall and some were short, some were soft , some had moveable parts, some sat and some stood, some were molded, some were carved, some were crafted, some were soldered, some were in or under rocks.
A little guest book was placed on the table and visitors to Bethlehem began to sign it. In less than a year, there would be 150 signatures from people who had come from at least twenty Texas towns, plus ten other states. Over the hutch would hang a framed piece of beautiful crochet work done by Eunice, one of Monroe’s cousins. It would read:
and see this thing which has come to pass,
which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came withhaste and found Mary, and Joseph,
and the babe lying in a manger."
Come see for yourself. Take time out for a little side-trip just a couple of miles east of I-35, just north of Denton, Texas, Come find this place called Bethlehem in Denton County and see these Holy Families for yourself. You may even get to meet Monroe, the Carpenter. Judy is the Collector/Curator/Manger-Maid of Bethlehem and she would love for you to come visit her collection ........ but remember, there is no lodging available. Bethlehem is not built to accommodate groups larger than eight or ten and is currently open only by appointment on evenings and weekends.
For more information, or to schedule your visit, just call Judy in the evenings or on weekends at (940) 231-4520; and remember: Monroe builds wonderful love gifts, but he does NOT give tours of Bethlehem.