In January, after the Christmas season ended and the time came to break down the nativity scene, longtime parishioner and sacristan Ed Nazarro suggested that, instead of breaking it down, Father Gonzalez might alter it to create a Lenten diorama.
"My head went wild," Father Gonzalez declared. "I began reading every Gospel of Lent and Easter, and even the ones leading up to Lent, and asking myself, 'How can I make it come alive?'"
"I love history, and I wanted to make this look as realistic as possible," he continued. He scoured the internet, looking for figures that would best embody his vision of the display; he went to a local bakery to buy wedding pillars to be used for Pontius Pilate's residence; he went to Home Depot and "bought anything that might be useful."
In all, Father Gonzalez believes he put in at least 100 hours in researching, planning and constructing the display, which includes lighting, flowing fountains, model buildings and mountains, and even live fish in the "Sea of Galilee."
"I think Father Daniel (Lazo), my pastor, started to think I was crazy," he laughed.
Finally, on Ash Wednesday, Father Gonzalez unveiled the finished display, explaining to the parishioners all the different components of the display, as well as the imagery.
"I used my research, my knowledge of the Gospels and my own experience of being in Israel a few times in order to make this the most accurate depiction I could," he said. "But also I wanted to use this as a way to evangelize -- to teach the people about the Gospels and the life of Christ in a way that is unexpected."
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.
"It's actually amazing to see what's happening. One woman, who was baptized Catholic but is no longer, approached me to speak to me about 'coming home' as she put it. Another person, who is, not even a parishioner here, just handed me a generous gift to offset the cost of the materials. Children are learning the Gospels. Teens are asking questions and making connections."
"I've seen people crying; others praying," he continued. "So much so that we are planning to make a brochure that explains each of the Gospels and their symbolism so that when people come here and pray, they can know exactly what it is they see."