Please see the bottom of this article for an update.
Maryknoll isn’t an obvious place to visit, but if you do hike up the steep hill from Stanley Village Road, you’ll be rewarded with a placid Catholic rest house built in 1935. And inside the imposing redbrick confines of the structure, something even more surprising: an enormous collection of nativity scenes collected from all over the world.
First, a bit of history. In 1930, the Catholic Church was looking to build a retreat for its clergy in southern China. After briefly considering the island of Shangchuan, off the coast of Taishan, church leaders settled on Hong Kong, which was much more convenient. The complex was meant as a retreat for clergy on missionary work in the interior of China; in the words of one priest, it was a place to recover from the penuries of travel, including “bandits and Bolshevists, as well as poor food and all sorts of delightful company like fleas and such.” The house was designed in a Chinese revivalist style, similar to several other Catholic and Protestant religious structures built in the 1920s and 30s, including St. Mary’s Church in Tai Hang and St. Francis of Assisi Church in Shek Kip Mei.
Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, so clergymen weren’t lazing about when they spent time at Maryknoll; they took the opportunity to brush up on their language skills, with classes in Cantonese, Hakka and Mandarin. The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong interrupted Maryknoll’s activities. About 20 priests and brothers were living in the retreat when Britain surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941, and they were soon imprisoned by the Japanese. They returned after Japan’s surrender in 1945, but it took more than a year to fix damage inflicted on the structure by the occupying troops.
Three decades later, a young priest named Sean Burke arrived at Maryknoll. He spent the rest of his life in Hong Kong, and at some point, he began collecting nativity scenes from around the world. Burke died in 2009, at the age of 63, but his collection lives on with 300 scenes from 62 countries. The nativity sets are displayed throughout the retreat, and while there are no information plaques, it is fascinating to see the diverse range of styles and materials used to depict the birth of Jesus Christ.
Update, December 2020: In 2018, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers sold the site to a property developer called CSI Properties, which is no in the process of redeveloping it into a luxury housing estate, with only a portion of the building’s façade preserved. Although the property has been designated as a Grade I heritage site by the government, this only requires the developer to document the building’s heritage assets; there is no legal barrier to demolishing it. It is unclear what has happened to Maryknoll’s collection of nativity scenes.