When Maria Sagardia celebrates her 88th birthday this weekend, she will have accomplished a lifelong dream -- assembling a nativity scene for Christmas.
But this isn't an ordinary, household manger tucked under the tree or on a table for the holidays. It's a life-sized, beautifully painted,outdoor creche that fills the tiny back yard behind her patio home at Glen Meadows Retirement Community near Towson.
And, on Sunday, instead of having a party with a cake, Sagardia will participate in a public lighting of the nativity, which includes the addition of the three wise men.
The annual event culminates the work of a lifelong woodcarver, a high school student, an art lover of classic works and Sagardia, who always wanted to re-create the nativity scenes of her youth in Puerto Rico.
With the Magi, the project she initiated three years ago will be complete.
"I want it to be a nativity for Glen Meadows," she says. "I like to emphasize the reason for the season and not all the festivities that go around it."
The active octogenarian, who retired as director of nursing for the Maryland Department of Health in 1974, is quick to point out that the endeavor is a community effort.
"Everyone else does the work. I can't draw a line," says Sagardia with a chuckle.
In the beginning, she enlisted the help of Evelyn Thon, who has nine shelves of art books in her Glen Meadows apartment, to search for paintings of the figures she needed. Sagardia was looking for Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, a donkey and a cow to start the scene in 1994.
"Without Evelyn, I wouldn't have a nativity," she says.
But finding the right Joseph proved difficult -- he always seemed to be depicted sitting down and sleeping. So Sagardia chose a substitute: a beatific St. Stephen. "I wanted a Joseph standing up and looking at the baby," says Sagardia.
And in what she calls a "miracle," Sagardia located a 1 1/2 -foot Christ child statue that years ago graced a nativity scene at Glen Meadows when the property was home to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The delicate statue, which was made in Spain, has gentle brown eyes that "look like they follow you," she says.
Sagardia brings the statue, which lies outdoors in a hay-filled, wooden crib, inside at night or in bad weather. The diapered infant rests in pink swaddling clothes in a basket by her bed, even after the nativity scene is taken down in mid-January. "I don't let anything happen to him," she says protectively.
Once Sagardia finds a rendering of a figure she likes, she turns it over to the Loch Raven High School art department. This year, Jody Tagg, a 16-year-old junior, made enlarged paper patterns of the three wise men.
From that point, Glen Meadows residents Len Hall, who enjoys woodcutting and carving, makes the wooden pieces from the patterns, and Dorothy Jones paints the serene faces.
"The only thing I can take credit for is the sheep," says Sagardia, who fashioned three furry sheep out of a black Persian lamb coat, a white faux fur and a fluffy white bathroom rug.
The animals join a painted gray donkey, a brown cow, an angel and a shepherd in the Bethlehem re-creation.
"It's a source of resident pride," says Chuck Brown, executive director of Glen Meadows. "People look forward to seeing it. It's sort of become a community tradition."
This year, Sagardia also added a 2 1/2 -foot plastic North Star, tied to a rain spout, to guide visitors to the scene, strewn with hay and seasonal evergreen trimmings.
"I can see it from my window," says Thon of the nativity. "It brings the whole idea of Christmas right to me."
The lighting of the nativity will be held at 5: 30 p.m. Sunday at Glen Meadows Retirement Community, 11630 Glen Arm Road. Information: 592-5310.
Pub Date: 12/13/96