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Nativity at 60: Make them feel needed

Hollywood parish celebrates six decades of caring for each other, being 'the Church'

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HOLLYWOOD | When Dianne Sepielli first visited Nativity Church, she told a woman she was a teacher.

The reply: "Wonderful! Want to teach CCD?"

Since that short talk nearly 45 years ago, Dianne and husband Russell have filled numerous needs at Nativity. They have taught CCD (religious education) and taken part in Emmaus. They're also extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, parish council members and annulment advocates.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski declared Nativity Church an "oasis" for rest and renewal. Behind him are the church's parochial vicars, Father Victor Babin, left, and Father Martin Muñoz.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski declared Nativity Church an "oasis" for rest and renewal. Behind him are the church's parochial vicars, Father Victor Babin, left, and Father Martin Muñoz.

Nativity's 2,200 families know how to make people feel welcome: Make them feel needed. And then make them feel at home. People then invest time and money — whether it's a prayer circle or a carnival or procession, or a gazebo needs building, or a benevolent food drive, or a clean-up after a hurricane.

"People are eager to take part," Sepielli said. "Whenever there's a call, more volunteers show up than needed. People here care not just about Nativity, but about our faith."

Archbishop Thomas Wenski paid tribute to that service ethic on Nov. 22, 2020, in his homily at the church's 60th anniversary Mass. Calling Nativity an "oasis" for rest and renewal, he noted that the Mass fell on the date for the Solemnity of Christ the King.

"Jesus is King, but unlike any other; for him, to rule is to serve," Archbishop Wenski said. "During these 60 years, you have built more than buildings. You have built an oasis of faith, hope and love. You have made a community where Christ is King."

Father David Zirilli, pastor at Nativity for six years thus far, added his own praise after the homily. "We priests come and go, but Nativity's parishioners have made this place what it is today."

The church had planned an outdoor picnic and some carnival rides but canceled in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendees were, however, offered white Christmas tree ornaments marked with the diamond-shaped 60th anniversary logo.

 

SANDSPURS AND WOOLLY BEARS

Nativity Church's first home in 1960 was a round tent that blew down in a storm.

Photographer: COURTESY

Nativity Church's first home in 1960 was a round tent that blew down in a storm.

Nativity Church was born not in a stable but under a tent. The embryonic congregation began meeting in private homes in the late 1950s, in Hollywood Hills. The worshipers asked Bishop Coleman F. Carroll for their own parish, and he agreed, establishing Nativity in August 1960.

The few left from those days are fondly dubbed the Nativity Originals, or even the Tent People. They remembered the round canvas structure in the sandy pineland where they worshiped for nearly a year.

Some told of sandspurs that gripped their clothes and woolly bear caterpillars that crawled across the wooden kneelers. And the 1,200-seat tent was pitched in the oppressive August heat — at a time when "Sunday best" still meant suits, dresses and long-sleeved shirts.

"After Mass, the priests couldn't wait to get their robes off quickly enough," said Russell Sepielli, who served at the first Mass as an altar boy. "At the next Mass, people came in short sleeves or sundresses."

Then there were the summer storms, sometimes requiring several men to hold the tent down. One day, it finally collapsed. Then the congregation met in various places including a theater, a military academy, a school gym and a city recreation center. Finally, the parishioners had their own space in 1962, on the first floor of their newly built school.

In 1967, the building fund campaign drew 350 volunteer fundraisers for a new church home. They set a goal of $300,000, then overshot it by $71,000. By the next year, they were worshiping in their own building, designed by Father Rene H. Gracida, pastor at the time. The church added a parish hall the same year, plus a pipe organ in 1970.

Father Gracida returned in 1975 to celebrate Nativity's 15th anniversary —this time as auxiliary bishop of Miami. He later became bishop of the dioceses of Tallahassee-Pensacola and Corpus Christi, Texas, before retiring.

This past May, Nativity added a 2,500-square-foot chapel, plus a complex of offices, meeting rooms, a rectory and a small, cloister-like garden with trees. At Father Zirilli's insistence, the complex also has ample table space for volunteers.

Dianne Sepielli jokes that she's a newcomer at Nativity Church, although she has attended for nearly 45 years.  Husband Russell was one of the first altar boys at the church.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Dianne Sepielli jokes that she's a newcomer at Nativity Church, although she has attended for nearly 45 years. Husband Russell was one of the first altar boys at the church.

Thomas Schopler, left, and Russell Sepielli were two of the first altar boys at Nativity Church, back in 1960.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Thomas Schopler, left, and Russell Sepielli were two of the first altar boys at Nativity Church, back in 1960.

Service entered the picture early as well: the parish St. Vincent De Paul Society began in December 1960, with a singles group following two years later. Nativity held its first Thanksgiving dinner for retirees in 1973. Following in 1983 was an outreach for shut-ins and the handicapped.

Father Zirilli said he keeps Nativity's mission statement simple: "Worship God, serve others, make disciples."

"All of our social ministries revolve around that," Father Zirilli said.


MINISTRIES, NOT ORGANIZATIONS

The church's 20-plus lay groups often hold special benevolent projects. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the church has filled several truckloads of canned goods for the Broward Outreach Center in Hollywood. Some parishioners have been saying the rosary via Zoom.

The parish Men's Club cooks almost weekly for the needy. And Nativity School runs an Adopt-a-Family program, raising $9,000 for grocery gift cards. The school has also collected toys to give away for Christmas.

"They're not just organizations; they're ministries," Russell Sepielli said. "The people are eager to take part. We are the Church."

Younger members get involved in retreats, charismatic meetings and Life in the Spirit programs. Some have even held "Jericho Walks" around abortion clinics as part of Respect Life observances, said Bella Tejeda, 18, the Sunday School secretary.

"Everyone is ready to help; they don’t think twice," Tejeda said. "They follow different paths and vocations, but they have the same goal: showing Christ's love and being the light of the world."

The church may run on prayer and devotions, but nuts-and-bolts workers are needed, too. One is Lou Spano, a member for 49 years thus far. Although he's a banker (now retired), Spano has done a variety of chores. He helped remodel the church interior, add new doors and install the sound system. And he supervised construction of the two gazebos in which people chat after Mass.

He's been helped as well, Spano added. When his father died, Nativity members brought in food and cared for his five children. And many of them invite him to their homes for get-togethers.

"The kids have moved out, but we don’t move away because of the church," Spano said. "The people are wonderful."


HURRICANE CLEAN-UP

Members pitched in also after Hurricane Irma, which raged through South Florida in 2017. Irma toppled six trees and strewed limbs and branches around Nativity's 7.5 acres. But 80-100 parishioners swarmed over the grounds — some in their 60s, some with their children, many with power tools — cleaning up within an afternoon.

Father David Zirilli shows his new desk, which allows him to sit or stand. The desk is housed in a complex of offices, rectory and a chapel, dedicated this past May 2020.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Father David Zirilli shows his new desk, which allows him to sit or stand. The desk is housed in a complex of offices, rectory and a chapel, dedicated this past May 2020.

Josette Zinglo and her family have served in several capacities at Nativity Church.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Josette Zinglo and her family have served in several capacities at Nativity Church.

Those who attended the 60th anniversary Mass at Nativity Church were offered Christmas ornaments like this one.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Those who attended the 60th anniversary Mass at Nativity Church were offered Christmas ornaments like this one.

Sometimes the volunteering takes on a dynastic feel. Josette Zinglo and her late husband, Tom, joined Nativity in 1961, and for years he ran the pizza booth at the carnival. When he took ill, their two daughters took over. Eventually, the girls turned it over to their younger brother, who still runs it.

And the volunteers may have to move fast. During a Marriage Encounter meeting that Zinglo attended, the host got a call about a bomb scare at the nursing home where she worked. The whole group, about 20 people, hustled there and evacuated the residents — some still in their beds, with tubes attached — into the parking lot.

"I started getting scared and wondering, What am I doing? I have three kids," said Josette Zinglo, who was part of the group. But she recalled that church members had rushed to help her as well, with dinners and rides to doctors' offices, when her husband came down with Alzheimer's.

"If you need something, you'll always get help from people from the church," she said.

Nativity's central location in Hollywood, plus its closeness to the turnpike, has helped it serve the community as well. In 1974, women of the South Broward Deanery chose the church for an appearance by Mother Teresa. And in 2018, Nativity hosted the 50th anniversary Mass and picnic for the archdiocese.

Ethnic observances have also found a home at Nativity. At various times, the members have held St. Patrick's Day dinners and banner-and-flag processions of Polish, German, Latino, Korean and other groups. After the death of Mother Teresa in 1997, the parish's Indian community dedicated a life-size statue of her at the church's outdoor Marian shrine.

Nativity seems not only to draw people, but sometimes to draw them back. Thomas Schopler served alongside Russell Sepielli as an altar boy in the early tent days, then moved away with his family during middle school years. He returned to South Florida as an adult with his wife, Theresa, and they tried a number of area parishes.

When they visited Nativity recently, they were captivated. "This is my kind of church," Thomas said. "It's modern, contemporary, what a Catholic church should be. And when the priest started talking, I didn't want him to stop."

For Theresa, it was settled: After that visit to Nativity, she said she'd found a home, even though it was her first time there.

"It was like God was there, and I was holding his hand," she said. "I feel like I was lost and now I'm found. I've found a home."

The Sepiellis moved to Weston a couple of years ago, but they still attend Nativity. They’ve never felt at home anywhere else.

"It's a little ride on Sunday morning, but we couldn't leave Nativity," Dianne said. "That's our parish forever."

Nativity Church celebrated its 60th anniversary with Mass on Nov. 22, 2020.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Nativity Church celebrated its 60th anniversary with Mass on Nov. 22, 2020.


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