Mary Markey Kuepper

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A Malibu resident of 55 years was remembered this week as the founder, organizer and longtime driving force behind Malibu’s “Keep Christ In Christmas” movement. Mary Markey Kuepper, 88, died of pneumonia at a Santa Monica care facility on Nov. 20.

Less than two weeks earlier, Kuepper had enjoyed the 90th birthday party for Monsignor John Sheridan, her family’s priest for nearly 50 years, at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church.

“She was such a remarkable woman,” Sheridan recalled. “She had such single-mindedness. When she centered on a project she just gave it full attention, and she was able to galvanize everyone around her in the same direction.”

The tradition of erecting a Christmastime nativity scene near the Malibu Civic Center, complete with farm animals, holy family and hay, dates back to Kuepper’s determination to bring a touch of her memories of New York City holiday celebrations out to the rugged Malibu coast where she settled with her husband, Dick, and daughter, Mary, in 1959.

Mary Markey Kuepper was the fourth of nine children born to a Bronx newspaper publisher and his wife. The family later moved to City Island, N.Y., where she attended parochial schools. In her teens, the family moved to New Rochelle, and she graduated from college there and worked in radio and writing for nearly 15 years, said her daughter.

“She was not traditional at all, she waited until she was 40 before she got married,” said her daughter, Mary Shore.

Kuepper had met her eventual husband on an Iowa vacation during college, but they did not become engaged until he looked her up in New York City more than a decade later, Shore said.

Adrian D. “Dick” Kuepper was an advertising executive who moved his young family to Los Angeles in 1955 to produce television commercials. The family settled first in Pacific Palisades, and then bought a house on Little Rock Drive in the Big Rock neighborhood.

“Our house was in escrow during the wildfire of 1959, and everything around it burned,” Shore recalled. “It was like moving to the moon.”

Mary Kuepper quickly became involved in church and parochial school affairs, organizing a St. Patrick’s Day commemoration that continues to this day, raising funds for the first playground equipment and organizing a car pool.

In 1964, Kuepper organized the first “Keep Christ in Christmas” effort. She is widely remembered for her hard work in starting the annual Christmas crèche tradition, and keeping it alive as Malibu grew and changed.

Sheridan said Kuepper was deeply moved by the Vatican II reforms, and saw the crèche as a way for the Catholic Church to reach out to other Christian denominations in an ecumenical effort.

“She was able to get people involved who hadn’t been to the church in years,” he said.

“Once she got her tentacles into you, you were committed to her project,” Sheridan said, laughing. “She had a good sense of humor, and she knew she was a saint, and a terror also.”

Shore said her mother believed in education and hard work.

“She knocked on every single door in Malibu selling World Book (encyclopedias). She didn’t care if they were a movie star, she just banged on the door and sold them World Book.”

“Do you know she sold a set of encyclopedias to Johnny Carson?” marveled another friend, Elizabeth Smith. “She just knew exactly who she was, and what it was she needed to do to get the job done.”

“I don’t think anybody who lived in Malibu back then doesn’t have a Mary story,” said longtime friend Henrietta Knapp-Lian. “She was never afraid of losing a manicure while doing a community project, and getting others involved.”

Another friend, Carol Dillon, recalled Kuepper’s deep devotion: “She was an ardent worshipper of the mother Mary, and anytime a day came to Mary, it was to be celebrated,” she said.

Kuepper’s husband, Dick, died four years ago. She is survived by her only child, Mary Shore, her son in law, Carl Shore, and her grandsons, Seth and Ian, all of whom reside in Cool, a small town near Lake Tahoe.

A funeral mass will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church, 3625 Winter Canyon Rd. The family is requesting remembrances be offered to Keep Christ in Christmas of Malibu, 23852 Pacific Coast Hwy. #503, Malibu CA 90265.