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Ellwood City's Nativity display to move from borough site to private property

| Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Attorney and business owner Joe Bellissimo and Ellwood City Council Vice President Jude Dici unpack part of the new nativity set that will be set up in front of Bellissimo's new restaurant (where they are standing) on Thursday, November 8, 2012. The restaurant was the former St. Agatha's Catholic Church at Fifth and Spring streets. Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Ellwood City Mayor Anthony Court and attorney and business owner Joe Bellissimo stand in the spot where the new nativity scene will be set up this year. Bellissimo bought the former St. Agatha's Catholic Church at Fifth and Spring streets and is converting it into a restaurant. Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Part of the new nativity set that will be displayed in Ellwood City. Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review

Ellwood City will have a Nativity display this year, but on private property about a quarter-mile from the borough building where the creche had been a holiday fixture for 50 years.

A religious freedom group from Wisconsin had threatened to sue the Lawrence County community last year over placement of the creche on borough property.

Ellwood City residents, frustrated that outsiders were trying to dictate what they could do, wanted the town of about 8,000 people to fight any lawsuit and keep the creche where it was. But town officials decided they faced an unwinnable fight.

Attorney Joseph Bellissimo of Ellwood City said he will put up a Nativity display outside the former St. Agatha's Roman Catholic Church, which closed about five years ago. Bellissimo and business partner Gene DiMeo bought the building and plan to open a restaurant inside. Bellissimo, 43, said he is paying for the new display.

“It's not about the money,” he said. “I think it's important because a lot of the people who were upset, I think they can take comfort in the fact that council didn't just walk away. They were looking for alternatives that would be acceptable by both the community and the borough. I think this is a good compromise.”

The new Nativity scene will be introduced at 2 p.m. Dec. 2 in a ceremony outside the former church at Fifth Street and Spring Avenue.

Some residents said they still are upset that the borough did not take on the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., in court.

“It's been there forever,” Debbie Freshcorn, 57, of Ellwood City said of the display on the lawn of the borough building. “It wasn't even someone from town complaining. Who was it bothering anyway?”

Foundation Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said on Thursday that her organization has never opposed religious displays, only that they cannot be on government property.

“We're not going to churches and dragging people out of pews or knocking over crosses on private property,” Gaylor said. “But the government can't get behind (a display).”

Bellissimo said borough manager Dom Viccari approached him about putting a manger at the former church, since it's a heavily trafficked area. Bellissimo quickly agreed.

“I've taught my five children never to be embarrassed of their Catholic faith and be proud of it and live it. It's important as a parent to stand up for what you believe in,” Bellissimo said.

Viccari said the former church will be “a perfect backdrop.”

Council member Glenn Jones said research shows that communities fighting First Amendment lawsuits over religious displays have lost, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs.

“We didn't want to take that chance,” Jones said. “We were looking out for taxpayers' money.”

Ellwood City Mayor Anthony Court said the creche should be at city hall.

“The next step was to take them on in a court of law. I believe council lacked the courage, unlike the community and the rest of us,” Court said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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