No room at the inn ... But there is at Squires'

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GUILFORD - As the white, blue and green lights illuminate the incredible hand-crafted detail of each piece, it's easy to see why Shirley Squires, 80, loves Christmas.

For more than a decade, Squires has opened her home to strangers, guiding them on a tour of her collection of more than 1,100 nativity scenes displayed throughout her home and garage, what she calls A Touch of Heaven.

"When you have a collection of this magnitude, people need to see it," Squires said.

This year she added an additional room as a way to space out all of her sets so that the more than 200 people each year that visit can enjoy them all, she said.

The collection, which started in 1997, features scenes of Jesus' birth from more than 50 countries including Nigeria, Brazil, Hungary, Peru, Costa Rica, Germany, Rwanda, Israel, Russia and Mexico, made from nearly every material you can craft with.

Wool, wire, plastic, stone and ceramic models of Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, angels, the three wise men and livestock fill nearly every nook and cranny of Squires' home and she knows where almost all of them came from.

Her collection has become so well-known in Vermont and New Hampshire that she is constantly being given new nativity scenes, she said. Her oldest set, from the early 1930s, was given to her by a woman she used to deliver communion to.

Like most of the people that have donated to Squires' collection, the woman said she knew of no better place than at Shirley's Touch of Heaven, to have her nativity scene.

Tours typically begin in part of her garage that Squires' son converted into a room specially designed to showcase the scenes.

"You could spend all day looking at and taking photos of her displays from all over the world," Elva Pogar, Squires' neighbor said. "She's moving herself out of her home with so many beautiful nativity displays."

Aside from celebrating the birth of Jesus, Squires said Christmas is by far her favorite time of year because it reminds her of some of the most important people in her life.

Her husband Maynard died on Dec. 13, 1991, and a little more than a year later she lost her son, Ron Squires, to HIV virus.

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"It put a damper on things," she said. "But this has always been my favorite time of year."

And when her grandson Kevin Squires and his girlfriend died in a car crash in September of 2006, she chose to set up the tiny, praying figures in his memory.

"I did it for them that year," she said.

Since her son died, Squires has participated in the AIDS walked and has raised more than $175,000 for AIDS research.

Between setting up the nativity scenes and raising money, Squires has little time for anything else, but does devote some of her time to the Guilford church, visits people who can't fend for themselves and looks for more scenes to add to her collection.

Most remain on the shelves year round, but she takes great care to set up the ones on the floor each year, putting them away again after the holiday season so they don't get damaged.

Her largest display consists of more than 150 Fontanini, Italian-made figurines, set in sand and spread out across a wooden platform on a guest bed.

She said she buys two or three new pieces each year because each comes with a unique story about how it fits in with the nativity.

She's often thought about not setting up her scenes but said she'll continue as long as possible.

"It's so much work and I'm not getting any younger," Squires said. "(But) I'm afraid that if I don't do it one year I might not ever do it again. I'll do it as long as I'm able."

To schedule a tour, call Shirley Squires at 802-254-2696.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.


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