God Squad sets up Nativity in Daley Plaza

By By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

God Squad sets up Nativity in Daley Plaza

Members of the God Squad assemble the outdoor creche in Chicago's Daley Plaza Nov 24, 2018. The God Squad, a team of volunteers from Chicago-area parishes, sets up the Nativity scene each year after Thanksgiving. The scene, now in its 34th year, is the only traditional display of Christmas in downtown Chicago and represents free speech and free exercise of faith by private citizens in the public square. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
Surrounded by children, Father Stephen Lesniewski of Lake Forest, Calif., blesses the Nativity in Chicago's Daley Plaza Nov 24. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
A young member of the God Squad secures the sign to the base of the creche. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
A volunteer works on securing a lamb. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
(Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
Children help lay down the hay. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
Ed O’Malley, Chicago Nativity Scene committee member, shares a little history of the outdoor creche in Chicago's Daley Plaza Nov 24. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
A child inspects a figure. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
Children join Father Stephen Lesniewski inside the Nativity for the blessing. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
Tom Cetera from St. George Parish in Tinley Park leads the choir in Christmas songs during the opening of the outdoor creche. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
A father and child watch the choir. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)
Visitors take a close look at the baby Jesus figurine in the outdoor creche. (Karen Callaway Chicago Catholic)

John Caplis from St. Benedict Parish, 2215 W. Irving Park Road, has a special job. Each Tuesday morning from now until after Christmas, he heads down to Daley Plaza to clean the bird droppings from baby Jesus and the other figures in the Nativity scene.

First, he fills a water bottle that he brings from home using the water fountain in the lobby of City Hall, which is located across the street from Daley Plaza. Then he retrieves a small bottle of dishwashing liquid and a sponge that’s hidden in the manger underneath the straw and goes to work.

“Pigeons and sparrows don’t wear diapers,” said Caplis. “The birds come here. It’s like a St. Francis of Assisi thing.”

He used to walk the 10 miles to the plaza from his home, but this year he has an injured leg so will cut the trip down to 5 miles, then take the train the rest of the way.

Caplis, who took over managing the setup after volunteer Charlie Seitz died this year, said he has been helping out since the Nativity scene was first installed, 34 years ago.

Caplis, a retired probation officer, is part of the God Squad, a group of volunteers, many involved in the trades, who descend upon Daley Plaza each year on the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving to erect the Nativity scene. The display is located just south of the Christkindlmarket facing Dearborn Street.

The figures, which stand about 4 feet tall, are all bolted to the base of the stable and then are covered with straw. The figure of baby Jesus, which has been stolen a few times, gets extra protection with cables and a metal strap securing it into the manger. The manger is also bolted to the base of the display.

Set up of the display is basically down to a science, according to Ed O’Malley, a parishioner of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Prospect Heights and a member of the Chicago Nativity Scene Committee.

“The God Squad is really the key to this. This is a group of about 30 to 35 carpenters, electricians and tradesmen who come out every year,” O’Malley said. “It gets done because people really enjoy it.”

Music and holiday lights complete the display and children of the volunteers help spread the straw around once everything is set up.

“It’s a very simple but powerful message,” O’Malley said of the Nativity scene. “In the city it’s one of the few places that you can see an outdoor display of your religious beliefs. I think every person out here is thrilled to be part of this organization and this effort.”

The reason for the display in Daley Plaza isn’t far from volunteers’ thoughts, with City Hall looming in the background.

The Nativity in Daley Plaza is on public land where citizens are allowed to erect, with approvals, religious expressions. It dates back to 1985, when officials in City Hall said they would no longer allow a Nativity scene in the building’s lobby. The American Jewish Congress had sued the city over the display.

Soon after, a group of volunteers, including William Grutzmacher and Rev. Hiram Crawford, received approval from the Public Building Commission to erect a small Nativity on the plaza, according to However, the commission reversed its decision and removed the scene. News media covered the removal, which resulted in public outcry.

The group sued the Public Building Commission in U.S. District Court and won. On Dec. 4, 1989, a judge ruled that the commission was enjoined from discriminating against all forms of religious expression and ordered the it to permit the group to erect the Nativity display.

The display has been up between Thanksgiving and Christmas ever since.

“It shows really what the season is all about, O’Malley said. “It’s nice to have all of the shops and different things but when people come down here, you see families, you see elderly, you see young children kneeling in front of this amid the hustle and bustle that we all get accustomed to. It kind of puts things in perspective.”



  • christmas
  • nativity

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