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Conways open up home of viewing of extensive Nativity set collection
Toni Conway
Toni Conway is opening her rural Ceres/Modesto home for the public to view her extensive nativity scene collection. The opportunity will be offered this week and not occur again until 2019. One in her collection is pictured below. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo

A collection of nearly 800 nativity sets of every size, shape and material will be on display at a free Christmas open house.

For more than 20 years, Toni Conway has collected nativities. And every other year she converts each room in her home, separate showroom, and the garage, into a glorious showcase of the birth of Christ.

The collection last showed two years ago and drew over 700 guests attended, including several busloads from local clubs, group residences and churches. This year the display is offered Dec. 7-10 at the Conway residence, 3242 S. Carpenter Road (between Whitmore Avenue and Service Road) west of Ceres, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 7-9 and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 10.

"This is my ministry," said Conway. "It takes a three-person team more than four weeks to unpack and setup the collection."

Conway's unique and varied collection includes a nativity set from Mexico sculpted from boiled potatoes, a nativity set from Kenya made of banana leaves and even a set from Columbia made from orange peels. The smallest nativity in the collection is one-half of a playing marble and the largest is life-size.

Toni and Bob Conway bought their first nativity scene when they were married 54 years ago. The 1997 death of her mother fueled a passion to collect more sets and now her amazing collection of nearly 800 nativity scenes - depicting the birth of the Christ child - is available for viewing during the four-day open house at their rural home in front of Valley Harvest Nut, the family farm.

After Frances Skittone was diagnosed in 1996 with ovarian cancer that went into remission for a short time, Toni relented into her suggestions to share the collection with the public, a tradition that has repeated itself every other year.

"She always said, ‘Toni, you need to show these,' and I'd say, ‘Ah, I'm too busy,' " said Toni. "When we knew that her time was short in 1996 I did an open house in her honor and she was my first hostess and then we lost her the next April. So that's how we started open houses and we've been doing them every other year."

Since her mother's passing, the burgeoning collection has expanded manger-folds. Family members, including the couple's children Rob, Mark and Janine, and Toni's sisters, are always looking for unique nativity scenes during their travels. This year, for example, her sister Pennie Rorex picked up a colorful nativity scene in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, carved from a substance made of hardened mixture of mashed potatoes and gypsum.

"We're always looking but they have to be very different and unique to add them to the collection," said 4-foot-8 Toni.

The sets are of every imaginable style and art form and range from a one-inch high piece that cost a dime at Scotty's Castle in Death Valley to a Hummel set made in Germany that cost over $1,000. A Limoges Nativity from France was also pricy but she noted nativity sets "don't have to be expensive to be beautiful."

She catalogues the history of each nativity set, which include with characters as American Indians, mice, cats, chickens, dogs, teddy bears and cowboys. She has an Italian theme scene made of terra cotta. One made of aluminum cans, another of glass bottles. A 1992 stained glass nativity scene made by the late Jan Lehmann, founder of Modesto's Fisherman's Galley, is in a bedroom window. Other pieces were bought on line, local gift shops and nurseries. Many were handcrafted by Christian missions, such as the Global Mamas in African.

Toni admits that it takes a lot of faith to let strangers into her home but she said "it works well."

Setting up the display disturbs life in the Conway household from the beginning of November to Jan. 1. She had help in the form of four girls helping on and off for a month. Even Bob has buy-in with a western themed room bearing a number of nativity sets including one with cowboys.

"They're displayed throughout the house," she said. "We have a separate nativity room with a beautiful display in there and this year we expanded to include the garage because I keep growing the collection."

When asked if her collection was an addiction Toni replied: "Well, I love the Lord and I love Christmas and we want to continue to share the true meaning of Christmas and it all comes together."

During her open houses, Toni walks around explaining to visitors where she acquired the pieces on display. Her favorite is in the garage: carved of pine with photos of family members as they appeared 20 years ago decapaged on the surface.

She didn't really know what to think of a nativity created by the Hopi Indians.

"It was a little different but when I realized that they took their culture and applied the birth of Jesus to it, who normally they would not worship, I thought it was very, very significant. A lot of people will say that they just want to make money off it - and that is true - but there isn't anyone who can't form something like this and not have a thought of ‘what is this? ‘why was this?'"
When does the collecting stop? Toni said when her health changes or if an organization promises to take it off her hands for public display it.

Christmas remains her favorite time of year for it brings together family.

"Family is very important to me. My little Italian grandfather used to compare the family to sticks. You put the sticks together and they might poke each other and stick each other but you keep those sticks together and you can't break them. You take one stick out, it breaks very easily. I've always used that theme for our family."