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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

In a pretend cell phone conversation with St. Joseph Monsignor Ron Swett lifts up a stuffed chimpanzee and mentions he didn't realize chimpanzees were one of the animals at the manger when Jesus was born. Children had brought their stuffed animals to a Christmas Eve mass at St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Bakersfield to participate in the Christmas Eve service.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Rebecca Bertran-Harris holds her goddaughter, Irelynn Sullivan, as the 2-year-old watches the Christmas Eve service at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Bakersfield.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

From left, Sister Marie Francis Schroepfer, and Anne and Ken Filipski and hundreds of others fill St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church and sing during the Christmas Eve service in celebration of the birth of Jesus.

After more than two decades leading St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church, Monsignor Ronald Swett was a little reflective Monday as he prepared to celebrate his last Christmas Eve Mass as head of the southwest Bakersfield church.

"Certainly, I'm a little nostalgic," he said prior to the first of three services marking his last holiday season before he retires early next year.

That was about as much sentiment as Swett would allow himself before he had to rush inside, where children were already lining up with their most beloved toys.

It's a tradition at the church's family service -- geared toward the congregation's youngest members -- to bring dolls and stuffed animals to the altar for a blessing.

Lillian Tracy, 7, was there with a teddy bear who wore a shiny gold dress. Her sister Clarisse Tracy, 9, brought a lanky elf doll named Ellie.

Their parents said Swett's retirement marked the end of an era.

"We got married here, and the kids were baptized here, and they went to preschool here," said their father, Todd Tracy, 44. "He's always been here for our family."

Christmas Eve services are always crowded, but on Monday the church, which has a capacity of about 800, was literally overflowing.

Families who were unable to find seats inside stood on the sidewalk outside the church and strained to hear the service, which kicked off with a choral rendition of "We Three Kings."

A mother of two young boys, Jennifer Tyner, 37, was among the worshippers who stood outside after all the seats in the main sanctuary and an adjoining chapel were filled.

Tyner remembers bringing teddy bears to the altar, herself. She's been a member of St. Philips since fourth grade, and said she was happy for Swett but "a little sad" to see him go.

"He is probably one of the holiest of priests I've encountered," she said. "When you come here, you feel like you're in the spirit of God."

Longtime congregant Walterine Head said Swett had been her pastor since his days in Tehachapi, where he preached before coming to St. Philips.

"Everyone is really going to miss him," she said. "He's been a part of our lives for a long, long time, and has such a warm spirit and a sense of humor."

Swett, 71, was ordained in 1967 and has served St. Philip for 25 years.

The priest's sense of humor was mentioned frequently by those who have heard him preach over the years. It was evident Monday, when Swett paused from his sermon to take a "call" on his mobile phone from St. Joseph, himself.

"I know you're busy up there in Heaven because of all the birthday activities. Is there confetti and stuff?" he asked.

Joseph declined to put Mary on the phone when he inquired about her. The monsignor explained after a pause that Mary was busy cooking a big holiday dinner.

The priest asked if it was true that when Jesus was born, the sky filled with an "infinite" number of angels, and then relayed that Joseph had said yes.

"Do you know what 'infinite' means, boys and girls?" Swett asked. "It means you never run out of angels."

Swett said there were shepherds there, too, and told Joseph that Bakersfield had lots of shepherds, but he relayed after a beat that Joseph had insisted those weren't the same ones.

At one point in the conversation, Swett surveyed all the stuffed animals at his feet, including a plush monkey, and told Joseph he hadn't realized there were chimpanzees in the manger in Bethlehem.

Swett concluded his sermon by leading the congregation in a rousing "Happy Birthday" song for Jesus, and then it was back to the traditional Mass with songs and prayers, and the final steps of a career in service.