Fidelis Bentele | Georg Bentele-Ücker

Weihnachtskrippe von Fidelis Bentele

The miracle of the Oberstaufen nativity scenes

Winter 1951
Georg Ücker brings a parcel with three nativity scenes to the post office

The addressee is the Archbishop of Chicago, who had commissioned it from Fdelis Bentele. The parcel is sent to the USA by sea freight.

21 December 1951
The cargo ship "Flying Enterprise" leaves the port of Hamburg

On board are 1,200 tonnes of pig iron, 900 tonnes of coffee, 1,682 sacks of mail and ten passengers. The destination harbour is New York.

28 December 1951
The "Flying Enterprise" sends out a distress call

400 nautical miles west of the British Isles, the ship was caught in a gale and in distress. The ship has a list and is unable to manoeuvre.

10 Januarý 1952
The "Flying Enterprise" sinks with its cargo

All rescue attempts are in vain. The "Flying Enterprise" sinks before the eyes of the world's public, who have been following the dramatic events in the media. The three Bentele cots are dragged down with the cargo.

December 1955
Bentele learns about the discovery of a cot on the Danish island of Röm

Shortly before Christmas, Fidelis Bentele learns that one of the three damaged nativity scenes had washed ashore on the Danish island of Röm. It is now in the possession of the painter Andreas Petersen.

Beginning of 1956
First nativity scene returns to Oberstaufen

In exchange for a crucifix carved by him, Fidelis Bentele receives the damaged cot back from Andreas Petersen. The two artists remain in contact and also meet in person.

February 1958
The magazine "Gong" reports on a second cot find

The German TV programme magazine "Gong" reports on a second cot find. On the Azorean island of Sao Miguel near the village of Vila Franca, a fisherman had fished it out of the sea as flotsam.

Literary treatment

Writers Zenta Maurina and Natalie Beer tell the wonderful story of the lost and found nativity scene in Christmas tales.

22. June 2001
The wreck of the "Flying Enterprise" is rediscovered and investigated

Wreck researcher and deep-sea diver Leigh Bishop rediscovers the wreck of the "Flying Enterprise" at a depth of around 85 metres. This is followed by investigations and filming for documentaries to mark the 50th anniversary of the shipwreck.

Autumn 2022
Heimatdienst Oberstaufen learns of the existence of the second cot

By chance, the Oberstaufen local history service learns of the "Gong" article from 1958 and thus of the existence of the second damaged cot. It is still not clear where it has remained.

christmas 2023
Oberstaufen searches for the nativity scene

Oberstaufen is launching a social media challenge in the hope of discovering the whereabouts of the nativity scene found in the Azores 71 years after the sinking of the "Flying Enterprise".

After a shipwreck in the English Channel in 1952: Three nativity scenes sink to the bottom of the sea with the cargo. Two of the three are washed back ashore years later - once in Denmark, once in the Azores

Three nativity scenes make their way from Oberstaufen to Chicago in the winter of 1951/52

Winter 1951/52: The Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Stritch, waits in vain for the delivery of three hand-carved log nativity scenes that he had ordered months earlier from the internationally renowned Oberstaufen sculptor Fidelis Bentele. The valuable works of art had already been loaded onto a cargo ship in Hamburg weeks ago and left the harbour on board the “Flying Enterprise” bound for the USA.

The dramatic shipwreck of the cargo ship “Flying Enterprise” keeps the world in suspense for weeks

But in December 1951, the ship was caught in a severe hurricane 400 nautical miles off the English coast. The cargo of iron ore on board slipped, the ship listing 50 degrees, and after the rudder stock broke, it drifted helplessly in the heavy seas. All attempts by the 48-strong crew to repair the damage failed.

On 28 December 1951, Captain Hendrik Kurt Carlsen sends out a distress call, whereupon some of the nearby ships rush to the shipwrecked vessel’s aid and – after the storm has abated somewhat – take over the crew and ten passengers on board by lifeboat. Captain Carlsen is the only one to remain on board his ship in the old sailor’s tradition.

On 3 January 1952, the storm has calmed down enough for the ocean-going tug “Turmoil” to take the shipwrecked vessel on board. On this occasion, the first officer of the “Turmoil”, Dancy, jumps onto the deck of the “Flying Enterprise” to keep Captain Carlsen company. Several attempts by Dancy to persuade Captain Carlsen to leave the ship, which is now listing 65 degrees in the sea, are rejected.

The dramatic manoeuvres keep the world in suspense at the turn of the year. Newspapers, radio and newsreels (including the Neue Deutsche Wochenschau) report on the events at sea, the fate of the ship’s crew and the 37-year-old captain, who is stylised as a hero.

On 9 January 1952 – after six days of towing and only 60 kilometres from the destination port of Falmouth – the steel towing cable breaks. All attempts to salvage the ship, which was once again adrift in the sea, were in vain.

Cargo ship “Flying Enterprise” with cargo including the Bentele cots sinks in the English Channel on 10 January 1952

On 10 January 1952, the Flying Enterprise and its cargo sank in the waters of the English Channel shortly after Captain Carlson and the first officer of the “Turmoil” had left the ship. On board were 1,682 sacks of mail, including ten sacks from Switzerland containing banknotes and securities worth 1.2 million Deutschmarks, a valuable instrument by the famous violin maker Vincenzo Rugeri – and the three Bentele cots.

December 1955: Fidelis Bentele learns of the discovery of a cot on the Danish island of Röm

How fortunate that the cots on the base plate bear the signature of Fidelis Bentele, FB, OBERSTAUFEN/GERMANY. Years later, Jens, a Danish fisherman’s son, discovers one of the 32-centimetre log cots off the island of Röm, which has washed up on the shore as flotsam. The cot has survived the years-long sea voyage over hundreds of kilometres almost unscathed; only the star of Bethlehem is missing and Saint Joseph has lost his right hand with the stable lantern. The light-coloured lime wood has turned silver-grey as a result of many years in the lake water. The clever fisherman boy, who obviously knew little about the nativity scene, immediately turns his slightly damaged booty into an object of exchange.

Fortunately, a German tourist witnesses this trade, in which Jens hands over the cot to the Danish painter Andreas Petersen and receives one of his watercolours in return. She did not fail to notice Bentele’s initials on the cot’s stand block, which prompted her to contact the mayor of Oberstaufen at the time, Herrmann Wucherer, and tell him about it. He immediately informed Fidelis Bentele, who was stunned by this almost unbelievable news. He had long since given up hope of ever seeing the cots again. This is the story told by Fidelis Bentele and Georg Bentele-Ücker.

The daily newspaper “Nordschleswiger” also reported the story on the front page of its Christmas Eve 1992 edition under the headline “35 years ago, the Holy Family was stranded in Rome”. A reader responded with a version of the story that Petersen had told him himself and which had appeared in the “Deutsches Volkskalender Nordschleswig” in 1982. According to the story, Petersen did not receive the cot from a fisherman’s boy, but from a 70-year-old lady as a thank you for the renovation work he had done for her shortly before Christmas. Her son had found the cot on the beach. Another woman, who had visited him two years later, recognised Fidelis Bentele as the artist from the signature.

On 6 January 1956, Bentele wrote to Petersen, asking for the cot back and offering to carve something for him as a replacement:

>> As I am strongly rooted in everything elemental, I would like to mention this without any arrogance, I would like to have this piece of wood in my hands again. I would like to have this piece of wood in my hands again. And I certainly believe, as the artist that you are, that you understand me. I have known your works for a long time, which have always interested me, without realising that I would ever come into contact with you.<<

The miracle of the nativity scenes – Bentele receives damaged nativity scene back

Petersen agrees to the barter and asks for a 50-centimetre crucifix in exchange for the return of the nativity scene, which he says had been in his possession for two years. Fidelis Bentele delivered and the recipient thanked him warmly in a letter dated 23 June 1956. The two artists remained in contact by letter and visited each other.

Der Bildhauer Fidelis Bentele und der dänische Kunstmaler Andreas Petersen

>> ‘As long as I live,’ he said, ‘I won’t let it out of my hands again. Sometimes I think it was a godsend that my work has returned here after such a long time. I called it ‘A rose has sprung’, and truly, for me the sculpture bleached by sea salt symbolises the ever-recurring, enduring good news of Christmas from the child in the manger’. <<

This is how Petersen describes Fidelis Bentele’s reaction to the return of the nativity scene on the occasion of his first personal encounter with the sculptor. (quoted from a newspaper report in the “Nordschleswiger”)

The nativity scene is given a place of honour in the home of the two artists Fidelis Bentele and his adopted son Georg Bentele-Ücker in memory of its fateful return into the hands of its creator. Since then, the cot has been on display at many national and international exhibitions at Christmas time.

Since Georg Bentele-Ücker’s death in 2014 at the age of 84, the nativity scene has been owned by the Heimatdienst Oberstaufen e.V., which presents it as part of the Bentele permanent exhibition at Alpe Vögels Berg.

Literary adaptation of the marvellous story

The marvellous fate of the sunken and reappeared cot moves and enchants people. Two writers, both personally acquainted with Fidelis Bentele, have been inspired by the story and have adapted it into their literary works. The Latvian publicist Zenta Maurina wrote “The Christ Child at the Bottom of the Sea”, included in a small booklet of Christmas stories from 1964, while Natalie Beer from Vorarlberg included her story “And the Ocean Carried Her Ashore” in the volume “And Found the Child in the Manger” from 1968.

Artikel aus der TV-Zeitschrift "Gong" vom Februar 1958

2022: The miracle continues – after 65 years, the local heritage service learns of a second cot discovery in the Azores

And as if this story wasn’t miracle enough, there is a sequel that is at least as spectacular as the Danish cot find.

This story comes to the attention of the local history service 65 years late, when in autumn 2022 it is informed by a woman from northern Germany that she has found a report in an issue of the magazine GONG from 1958 (!) in the estate of her deceased father, in which a cot find is reported. And this report describes the sinking of the Flying Enterprise, not without adding that Fidelis was only tersely informed by the responsible authority that his shipment had been “lost” and that he had no legal claim to compensation or indemnity.

Much more important, however, is the discovery of the cot, documented by two photos, according to which the fisherman José Melena fished a cot out of the sea as flotsam off the Azores island of Sao Miguel, which belongs to Portugal, near the village of Vila Franca, with the following clearly legible notch on the base plate: “F.B. OBERSTAUFEN GERMANY.

Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the cot from 1958 onwards have not yet been clarified. And there is still no trace of the third cot that was damaged.

Oberstaufen is looking for the nativity scene:

Help us find out where the nativity scene that washed ashore in the Azores has gone. Take part in our social media challenge and be there when a sequel to the miracle of the nativity scenes is written.