LOWELL -- For the past 14 years, people of Greater Lowell have had a different option from Black Friday and tree lightings to kick off their Christmas season. That involves walking into a Gothic style church sanctuary built in 1862, feeling an immediate sense of peace that contrasts with the busyness outside the church, and immersing oneself in the true meaning of the season -- multiplied 200 times.

That option is No Room at the Inn at Lowell's St. John Episcopal Church. This year it takes place today through Sunday. A suggested donation of $5 per person benefits St. John's Community Outreach programs, which include local food pantries and feeding programs.

Coordinator Roma Fauvel with Nativity items at Ste. Marguerite D’Youville Parish Center in Dracut Thursday.  Sun/Bob WhitakerSun staff photos can be
Coordinator Roma Fauvel with Nativity items at Ste. Marguerite D'Youville Parish Center in Dracut Thursday. Sun/Bob Whitaker

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.

The Gorham Street church's aisles are lined with a unique collection of more than 200 Nativity sets or depictions of the Nativity from around the world. The church's stained glass windows, antique wooden pews and soft Christmas music enhance the sacred ambiance as visitors quietly weave around the aisles to browse the variety of crèches.

It's a scene that will be repeated across the Merrimack River in Dracut, allowing those who enjoy Nativity sets to achieve a double dose of the true meaning of the season this weekend.

"O Holy Night" takes place at the Ste. Marguerite D'Youville Parish Center from now through Sunday. Set up in a classroom of the former Saint Therese School building will be more than 100 Nativity sets or depictions of the Nativity in a serene setting with lots of white lights, decorative fabrics and Christmas music. Admission is free.

"People are often very surprised when they come in at how beautiful it is," said coordinator Roma Fauvel. "They say it's not what they expected."

What ties the two events together? Fauvel was inspired to create "O Holy Night" by reading an article in The Sun about No Room at the Inn. At the time, she was the coordinator of Religious Education for Ste. Marguerite D'Youville and also an avid collector of Nativity sets.

"I thought it would be a good way to remind the religious-education students of the true meaning of the season, and remind their parents that if the family has a Nativity set, put it out this year or maybe even buy one," she said.

While each event is unique, those volunteers logging in countless hours to make it happen are doing so for the same reason: to provide a pocket of peace among the hustle and bustle and as a reminder that among all the commercialism of Christmas, there was the miracle of a baby born in a manger.

At No Room at the Inn, "all the sets are displayed as people would have them displayed in their homes," said coordinator Raymond Hoag. "The collection includes Llardo, Fontanini, Hummel, Dedham Pottery, French Santons and Lennox, as well as some from our childhood that come from the five-and-dime stores."

The event also features a raffle, silent auction, gift sale and complimentary refreshments.

Hoag points out that those "who come in are doing their part to feed the hungry, and they also get to see the beautiful displays." He adds that through last year more than $20,000 has been donated to local programs from No Room at the Inn.

"Every year we get new exhibitors as well as returning favorites. This year we'll have 40 exhibitors," Hoag said. The collectors, he continued, generously loan their sets for display, many year after year.

Nativity displays are on view at the Parish Center at Ste. Marguerite D’Youville Parish on  Thursday.  Sun/Bob WhitakerSun staff photos can be
Nativity displays are on view at the Parish Center at Ste. Marguerite D'Youville Parish on Thursday. Sun/Bob Whitaker

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.

Several of the collectors purchase the sets as they travel the world. That means for No Room at the Inn, sets from Mexico, Peru, Africa and European countries take their place alongside those from New England and local gift shops.

Some, like Boyd's Bears, the Alaskan Nativity featuring eskimo dress, Precious Moments and the snowman Nativity have particular appeal to children, Hoag said.

Hoag says many people return each year, always at the beginning at Advent, because they see the Nativity "depicted in so many different ways, cultures and mediums. And it takes them back to the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of Christ."

Fauvel has been steadily building the church's collection each year by adding to her own collection and receiving donations from parishioners. 

Some are on loan by families before they set them up in their own homes, she said.

O Holy Night's collection runs the gamut from whimsical to beautiful, she said. Most popular, she added, is the large Nativity in the center of the room.

"The children are allowed to play with that one and they just love it, especially the younger ones," she said.

Fauvel says the best time to view O Holy Night is "at night," but daytime hours are available.

She suggests bringing "friends, co-workers, neighbors, kids, parents -- someone who doesn't get out too often. It's a gift you give to yourself. Seeing the beautiful displays itself is a gift, but even more so is the way you are going to feel inside."

St. John Episcopal Church, 260 Gorham St., Lowell; Today 7-9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. For information call 603-912-5432 or email rhoag@comcast.net.

Ste. Marguerite D'Youville Parish Center, 33 Goodhue Ave., Room 105, Dracut. Today, 6-9 p.m.; Saturday, 3-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.