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placeholder Latino Catholics honor Our Lady of Guadalupe in Oakland procession

Growing parish dedicates new center in Pleasanton

Artist displays collection of more than 300 Nativity sets

Moraga woman remembers Christmas in Siberia exile

Livermore parish welcomes Father Acob

Superior Court judge praises new legal clinic at Oakland cathedral

Diocese sponsors leadership summit

Pax Christi invites Catholics to offer peace prayers for Bethlehem at Christmas

Pope’s Midnight Mass and other Christmas events will be telecast on EWTN

Congo humanitarian crisis grows, churches seek help to stop violence

Does a vote for Obama require doing penance before Communion?

In the Eucharist is found the evidence and renewal of hope

Sister Renilde Cade, O.P.
Sister Doris Donaldson, PBVM

placeholder December 15, 2008   •   VOL. 46, NO. 21   •   Oakland, CA

This paper mache set from Mexico is part of Ed Frakes' collection.
Artist displays collection of more than 300 Nativity sets

A pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph are among hundreds of Christmas figures in the collection.

The prospect of having 2,000 people traipse through one’s home for two days would be enough to give most people major heart palpitations. But Niles artist, Ed Frakes, welcomes such a visitation.

Each Christmas season for the past six years, Frakes, a volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Alameda County, has cheerfully thrown open the doors to his Victorian house so that visitors can view his vast collection of Nativity scenes. Frakes asks for donations which he then passes along to the Society to further its charitable work among the poor and needy. Last year he turned in nearly $1,200.

This past weekend, Dec. 13 and 14, tour number seven commenced with 350 scenes on display for guests to admire, savor and meditate upon. The creches come from Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Israel, and Italy. Many are the fruits of his travels. Others are gifts from friends.

This icon depicting the birth of Jesus was written by Benedictine Sister Paula Howard of St. Scholastica Convent in Atchison, Kansas. It is among 350 creche scenes in the collection of Ed Frakes.

Frakes’ newest acquisition is a traditional Byzantine icon written by his fifth grade art teacher, Benedictine Sister Paula Howard. Now 86, “and still going strong,” Sister Howard is a working artist at St. Scholastica Convent in Atchison, Kansas, Frakes’ hometown. When he visited his former teacher last summer, he was so taken by her new icon, he brought it back for his collection.

Some of Frakes’ crèches veer away from the traditional into whimsy and comedy. They emerge from his puckish penchant for creating “quirky little things.” He credits Dorothy Parker, his favorite writer, for nudging him in this direction.

Examples: One crèche shows St. Joseph holding a little fishing pole. A nearby sign reinforces the carpenter saint’s intent: “going fishin.” Another is peopled by Nativity figures that are broken. Frakes has housed them in a Red Cross M.A.S.H unit.

When he kept finding Baby Jesus figures and extra angels at local flea markets, he created a crèche entitled “Bethlehem Day Care Center.”

Frakes was moved to create his own crèches after finding numerous Nativity figures during forays to flea markets and antique shops. When people learned about his new hobby, they started scavenging about in their own attics.

Ed Frakes has put the figures from one of his Nativity sets above the doorway of his Fremont home.

“I never know what I’m going to find on my front porch when I open the door,” he said.

His crèches are an ongoing project sandwiched into his busy schedule.
Frakes, 71, a retired art teacher with the Newark School District, also transforms large antique ironing boards into angels with impish grins. He makes small metal “garden angels” (a pun for guardian angels) from old table legs. He donates these objects d’art to St. Vincent’s four thrift stores, one of which is in Fremont.

Profits from these and other donated items go towards feeding the area’s hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and training formerly homeless people to reenter the workforce. Of his gratis art work, he explains: “It’s the process, not the product. I’m fortunate enough not to have to make my living selling art.”

Thirteen years ago, Frakes packed his easel and paints and took a road trip across the United States. His goal: to paint irises, one of his favorite flowers. “They bloom at different times across the country,” he said. He now has a large collection of iris paintings from Kansas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Indiana — pick a state and Frakes has been there communing with and capturing the blooms with his paint brush.

When one friend asked Frakes why he seemed so preoccupied with irises, the artist admits to being momentarily stymied for a reply. “But then, just to shut him up, I told him they were a symbol of my soul.” Frakes was as stunned by his answer as was his friend. “Afterwards, I wondered where that came from but decided I’d better pay attention.”

Then he remembered a quote by the French Impressionist artist, Matisse, to the effect that if you don’t draw something spiritual, it is only anecdotal art.

Since both spirituality and artistic creativity have much to do with letting go in faith, and getting out of one’s head, Frakes began “trusting the process” as he mixed his pallet of colors. Since then, his irises have become more abstract. “I have no idea how they are going to turn out,” he says quietly.

A finger puppet Nativity set.

Despite encroaching cataracts, he continues with his art. “If I didn’t paint, I’d be goofy.”

Ed Frakes first began painting at age 21, “out of boredom.” Serving in the Army at Fort Ord at the time, he signed up for an art class to help survive the tedium. Much to his surprise, Frakes discovered a talent he didn’t know he had. After his discharge he enrolled at Washburn University for a degree in fine arts. He graduated in 1965, then began teaching elementary and high school art classes.

He joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society in 1992 “because I really didn’t have a choice.” An older member at Frakes’ parish, Corpus Christi in Fremont “told me they didn’t have anybody under the age of 70, so I had to come to their meeting.” Once Frakes learned about the Society’s charitable projects, he was hooked.

Since then, Frakes has devoted much of his free time to working directly with the poor, doing home visits to find out what they need — such as rental payment assistance, bus tickets to get to work, or help with utility bills. He also joins with other conference members to prepare lunches for homeless people living in the Niles Canyon area.

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