KEARNEY — The song Paul and Deb Stec heard at the Kearney Catholic High School’s Christmas concert six years ago tugged at them. The country song asks, “Where’s the line to see Jesus?”
The Stecs thought about the long lines that form every December to see Santa Claus. They thought of how Christmas has become so bloated with commercialism that its true meaning is often shoved into the shadows.
This year, thanks to the Stecs, the line to see Jesus can be found at Hilltop Mall at Second Ave. They personally purchased and put up a Nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus in the mall’s north end, near the J.C. Penney store.
The Stecs’ quest began in 2012 after the concert. They talked about buying a Nativity scene and putting it up somewhere in Kearney, but when Paul Stec Googled Nativity scenes, he learned that the least expensive sets cost $3,500. From there, prices skyrocketed to $12,000 and beyond. That was beyond the means of Stec, an agent at UNICO Group Insurance at 8 W. 56th St.
Undaunted, he poked around town and inquired at several retirement communities that have Nativity scenes. Then, life interfered, so he put the idea aside.
This year, he decided it was time to pull the Nativity scene out of his bucket list. Time was fleeting. His granddaughter Tasha Ritchie now is a senior at Kearney Catholic High School. “It was time to take a leap of faith,” he said.
With a bit of trepidation, he went to Hilltop Mall and presented the Nativity idea to mall manager Scott Ehmke. “He really embraced it. He thought it was a good idea,” Stec said. “The mall was also flexible about where we wanted it. They were very cooperative.”
With Deb’s help, Stec opened his old files, called up Google and purchased a modest Nativity set with just Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus from ChristmasNightInc.com. He purchased no animals, no shepherds, no wise men and no stable. The cost of those three figures was $1,100, plus $400 for shipping. The Stecs placed the order in October.
The Saturday before Thanksgiving, in a snowstorm, the Stecs, friend Bob Grabenstein and their daughter Tiffany Ritchie, who is Tasha’s mother, lugged the unwieldy boxes into the mall and set up the display just outside J.C. Penney’s. The Stecs chose that spot because with Herberger’s closed, there is more traffic at the mall’s northern end. Grabenstein encircled the three figures in the display with fencing he had purchased at Menards.
The story would’ve ended there had Kearney Catholic High School not had its Christmas concert last week. Unbeknownst to the Stecs, Tiffany Ritchie had told people at the school what her parents had accomplished. At the concert, music teacher Lindsay Lund told the audience about the Stecs’ efforts and sent a hat through the audience to gather contributions.
“We were shocked,” Deb said. “We expected maybe a few hundred dollars, but the entire scene is now practically paid for.”
They’ve since learned via Facebook that many people are glad to see a Nativity scene at the mall. The Stecs took their grandson, 2, to see it “because it is important to him that he learns about the baby Jesus.” They attend St. James Catholic Church.
Sometime after Christmas, the couple will dismantle the Nativity, take the pieces home and store them, but they’re already looking ahead to next year. In 2019, they would like to add a shepherd or a Wise Man if mall management approves.
“The whole set is pretty big, and all the pieces are expensive,” Stec said. “But I raise funds for Rotary, and I’ve learned that if there’s a need that touches people’s hearts, it’s never a problem raising money. Our goal is just the true meaning of Christmas.”
Deb said Lund is the project’s secret angel. “If she hadn’t picked that song at that concert six years ago, this would not have happened,” she said.