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Ellwood City creche finds home at former church after threat of legal action

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
A hand is held up during a blessing of the new Christmas Creche in front of the former St. Agatha's Church in Ellwood City Sunday, December 2, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The crowd began to hum along with a beautiful version of 'Silent Night' sung by Matthew Barnes, 19, left, of Ellwood City, during the Blessing of the new Christmas Creche in front of the former St. Agatha Church in Ellwood City Sunday, December 2, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
'It's beautiful' said Shirley Dominelli of Ellwood City as she examines the new Nativity creche in front of her former church, St. Agatha's in Ellwood City. A blessing was held Sunday, December 2, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Mike Parisi of Ellwood City, hands out lawn signs reading 'Ellwood The City With The Nativity' to those interested, after a blessing of the new Christmas Creche in front of the former St. Agatha's Church in Ellwood City Sunday, December 2, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

As Ellwood City Mayor Anthony Court stood near a figurine of baby Jesus on Sunday, a pastor quietly urged him to set aside his bitterness over the handling of a controversy surrounding the borough's former Nativity display.

Court was not ready to turn the other cheek.

“It doesn't sit well with me,” Court said as more than 100 people assembled in the rain along Fifth Street to celebrate the placement of a new creche outside a former church being redeveloped as a restaurant.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation had threatened to sue Ellwood City over the placement of a creche outside the municipal building, its holiday home for more than a half-century. Borough council voted 4-2 last December to remove it rather than wage a potentially costly legal battle.

“For those people to come into our city to oppose what has been a lovable tradition for more than 55 years, I think it's just wrong. I think our council lacked courage to not stand up to them,” Court said before a ceremony to bless the new creche at the former St. Agatha Roman Catholic Church.

“They may be able to change to change our spot, but they can't change our beliefs,” Court said.

Ellwood City Councilwoman Judith Dici said her vote to remove the creche from borough property was a difficult one that many people received poorly.

“No one wanted to move it, but as a councilwoman, I'm a caretaker of the borough's money. I couldn't in good faith vote to fight a battle that our solicitor said was a no-win,” said Dici, who attended Sunday's ceremony.

Local attorney Joseph Bellissimo, 43, said borough officials approached him about placing a creche outside the former church, which he bought with business partner and attorney Gene Dimeo. Bellissimo said he paid for the 12-piece display but declined to reveal how much.

“This isn't about the money. Ellwood City is a town that's going to show its faith,” Bellissimo said after handing out red-and-white yard signs to attendees that read, “Ellwood The City With the Nativity.”

Those on hand said they were thankful for the new creche.

“I'm bitter it can't be where it was for 50-plus years, but people are here because they want to keep Christ in Christmas, and that's a good thing,” said Mike Parisi, 54, of Ellwood City.

A Freedom From Religion Foundation leader said on Sunday that she was satisfied with the outcome.

“We're very pleased this got resolved in a way that upheld the First Amendment and the separation between church and state,” foundation Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said. “We have no objection to displays on private property. As far as we're concerned, this is a happy ending for all.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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