Vincent de Paul, who was canonized in 1737 and named the patron saint of charitable causes in 1885, dedicated his life to serving the needy.

More than 350 years after his death, the Mays Landing school that bears his name takes his example to heart.

In its latest charitable venture, St. Vincent de Paul Regional School held a Living Nativity program Friday that included a live sheep, camel and donkey in the parking lot behind the school. Admission was one nonperishable food item to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. Hundreds of people attended.

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“This is what we’re about — bringing the community together,” said school Principal Linda Pirolli, who lives in Ventnor. “We’re doing a community service. This is what Christmas is all about.”

The program told the story of the first Christmas, from the angel’s visit to Mary through Jesus’ birth in the manger and the gifts of the three wise men.

Younger students sang songs in chorus or waved glow sticks to the beat of traditional Christmas songs, while older students narrated and acted out the story.

St. Vincent de Paul students have performed the Nativity story before, usually at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Egg Harbor Township. But Friday’s event was the largest, the first to feature live animals, and the first to be held at the school. After the event, Pirolli said she hoped to make the more elaborate staging an annual tradition.

The collected food was donated to the Second Baptist Church of Atlantic City, whose animals were used in the program.

Pastor Collins Days, of Second Baptist, said the school has been a valuable ally in their effort to help Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy.

“They have been tremendous, even before this, to assist us,” the Atlantic City resident said. “They saw the need. It’s neighbor helping neighbor.”

Lisa Gillespie, of Mays Landing, attended the event to watch her 13-year-old daughter, Madison, who was a narrator. Madison, now in eighth grade, has been involved in numerous charitable activities since she was enrolled five years ago.

Learning to give is one of the most valuable lessons in life, Gillespie said, and one that St. Vincent de Paul again proved it was well-equipped to teach.

“They don’t just talk about it and teach the kids, they actually do it, from the time they’re really little,” Gillespie said. “It instills in them a gift of giving and empathy and love and tolerance, it’s amazing. It’s not like they’re telling them, ‘Be this way,’ they’re showing them.”

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