Ponchatoula churchyard gains notoriety as "Drive-Thru Bethlehem"

Ponchatoula churchyard gains notoriety as "Drive-Thru Bethlehem"
Each person offers their talent in the production. Some are set-builders. Some are actors.(Source:Wesley Chapel Methodist Church, Ponchatoula)
Each person offers their talent in the production. Some are set-builders. Some are actors.(Source:Wesley Chapel Methodist Church, Ponchatoula)

PONCHATOULA, LA (WAFB) - They drive down South Thibodeaux Road in Ponchatoula this time of year expecting a spectacle.

And every year, the Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church delivers.

Because there on the church grounds which are set a little way off the road go up wood "sets" with live animals, costumed volunteers and an epic story plays out just in time for Christmas.

It's "Drive-Thru Bethlehem", a tradition known locally, but only publicized by word of mouth. This is an attempt to share this little slice of Americana with you. The drive-thru tour is free. It's happening for the next two Sundays. That's November 29th and December 6th from 6 to 8 pm.

"It's about five different churches and we have about 80 folks that are involved," says Diana Cambre, who says she's "just a worker bee".

Lee's Landing United Methodist Church, Ponchatoula First United Methodist, The Well, and individuals from Presbyterian churches all participate.

Cambre says that Wesley Chapel member Kay Harper is this year's chair person. With the church's generous front yard, it's no wonder they thought of something fabulous to do. The set-building takes place early.

"We usually start first part of October each year. We kind of rebuild, refurbish and re-arrange the stuff we've used in previous years. We store some of it. Every year we pretty much put it on with donated stuff. We store 80-percent, and 20-percent are constructed new each year."

Cambre says the "cast" of this event are all volunteers will be different every week because of availability. Not everyone can do it both weekends. So the number of "actors" changes, "It varies depending on who can do it. We'be had as few as 40, and as many as 80. Sometimes the volunteers one weekend, bring their friends with them the next. That's what we enjoy. It's not just our church, we really involve the whole community!"

That means that "The Miracle of the Costumes" takes place each weekend. When the church first started hosting this spectacular, the women of the church gathered with several sewing machines and tons of remnant fabric and sewed Bible costumes of every color and shape and size. A person comes in and they just reach into the pile and somehow it fits. Probably speaks to the flexibility of men and women wearing basically the same robes.

Dot Lavigne, Nelda and Sonia Henry are the seamstresses of the masses. WAFB's Donna Britt asked her to describe the Drive-Thru.
"As you turn in the entrance, there's the prophets, and when you come down the driveway, it immediately starts with scenes of Mary and Joseph. They're built off to the side. And as you come through, you see a scene of The Wise Men, also Caesar and Herod."

Your car tour starts to wind behind the church building and that's when you enter the City of Bethlehem.

"You travel back in time through the market place," Cambre said. "And on the other side of the church, there are shepherds and angels and the manger scene and Baby Jesus." As your car starts heading back to the front of the property, "You turn as you're exiting the manger scene, you actually get to pray with John the Baptist. We also have a station of Mary and young Jesus for the Wise men's visit. As your car heads out to the driveway, you get a scroll with activities for the children and we have Christmas carolers."

Cambre remembers one more thing, there are Roman tax collectors and census takers. That way the church can find out how many people came to see their big extravaganza. "We've had people from as far away as Slidell and Baton Rouge."

If you would like to see Labor of Love, you may do so on Sunday, November 29th and Sunday, December 6th. The event is from 6-8pm at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, 39731 S Thibodeaux Road in Ponchatoula.

When you see the live chickens, sheep, goats, horses and one donkey, remember it's a slice of Americana. You can tell 'em Donna Britt sent you.

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