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A huge Nativity scene finds a home at USX Tower

Putting the Vatican replica on private property avoids constitutional controversies of the past

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For the past three years, churches of several denominations have been trying to put Christ back in Christmas Downtown. He's back in a big way -- in a huge Nativity scene at the USX Plaza.

  The Nativity scene at USX Plaza will be ready by tomorrow. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

The creche is being erected at the corner of Grant Street and Sixth Avenue. It's bigger and, many people say, better than creches of the past.

Heads turned and eyes opened wide Friday as people passed by the plaza, where workers were finishing construction. An exact replica of a creche at the Vatican, it is 64 feet wide, 42 feet tall, 36 feet deep and weighs a whopping 66,000 pounds.

The steel and wooden structure, covered in straw and realistic-looking rocks made of painted plastic foam, will be dedicated at a prayer service at noon tomorrow. It contains statues representing the Christ child, Mary, Joseph and two shepherds, one male and one female.

What -- no Wise Men?

"The Three Kings are en route," said USX spokesman Jim Hamilton. "They'll be here Friday. US Airways is flying them in first class."

All of the statues are being transported from the Vatican, where the same sculptor, Pietro Simonelli, who created that creche, designed Pittsburgh's.

The creche will be on display for a month. Then it will be stored in a building on the South Side until next December, when it will go up at USX Plaza again.

Things haven't been easy for the Nativity scene. Like the baby Jesus, who could find no room at the inn 2000 years ago, the scene representing his birth has had trouble finding a permanent home Downtown.

Until 1989, the Nativity scene had been at the county Courthouse, but opponents, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, said public property wasn't the right place for a religious symbol.

The ACLU filed suit in 1986 to remove the creche from the courthouse, but it wasn't until three years later that the U.S. Supreme Court banished it. The court said the display amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of a religion.

From 1996 to 1998 a small version of the stable scene was placed on the Gateway Center lawn by a religious coalition called the Christian Leaders Fellowship.

But that, too, drew protests. The land was city property, and other groups said that if a creche could be erected there, they should be allowed to put up signs touting their causes. The city finally said everything was off limits on that patch of ground.

"We've known for a while that we'd have to find a new place for it," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.

Bishop Donald W. Wuerl worked with Thomas Usher, USX chairman, to find a suitable place. A major figure in getting permission from the Catholic Church to put up the creche was Pittsburgh architect Louis Astorino, who has done work at the Vatican.

Permission to erect the creche was a coup for Pittsburgh, Lengwin said.

"It's the only replica anywhere in the world of the authentic Vatican creche," he said.

The Pittsburgh creche isn't just a Roman Catholic project. The Christian Leaders Fellowship includes the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, Greek Orthodox, United Methodist, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian (U.S.A.), African Methodist Episcopal Zion, American Baptist and United Church of Christ churches and Salvation Army in Pittsburgh.

People passing by the creche Friday liked what they saw.

"I'm glad to see it back," said Darlene Miller, an active member of St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church on the North Side. "I was not happy about the creche being removed [from the courthouse]. Christmas has become so commercialized. It's good to see the true meaning of Christmas."

About the protests that drove the creche off public property, another woman, Bonnie Miller of Pittsburgh, said: "It think it was a disgrace. I'm glad there's a place for the Nativity scene without all that riffraff from the ACLU."

"It's gorgeous," agreed John Rose, an elevator technician who said he was "raised Catholic but I'm not exactly a pillar of the church."

Rose, who works in the USX Tower, said he and his co-workers "have been asked a million times lately what's going on in the plaza."

Scaffolding work started just before Thanksgiving, and construction continued last week, most of it done for free by carpenters, electricians and other unionized members of the Pittsburgh Building and Construction Trades Council.

Lengwin said what cheered him most about the project was the cooperation of private businesses, foundations and the unionized construction workers putting up the structure.

Even the ACLU is OK with the creche this time.

"Private individuals and corporations have a constitutional right to practice their religious expression and put up religious symbols," said Witold Walczak, director of the Pittsburgh chapter. "There's no legal problem."

He did wonder, however, about the "sensitivity" of the situation, wondering whether symbols would be erected for Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim holidays.

Hamilton said a menorah would be erected soon in another section of the plaza to mark the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Hamilton said the building manager at USX Tower, Winthrop Management, contacted the major tenants of the building a few weeks ago, and none objected to the creche.

Two brothers who have spent a lot of time on the project are John and Don Edkins of JE Scenic Technologies on the South Side. They have created sets for touring musicals and plays, and the creche will be stored in their warehouse after it's taken down in January.

"It's a good cause," John Edkins said of the creche. "It shows the spirit of Christmas. Also, Pittsburgh is the first place given permission [by the Vatican] to duplicate this, and we want to show them our caliber of craftsmanship."

Allen Weiss, head of the electrical department for Astorino architects, said he designed lighting for the creche that will change intensity, making the figures appear to move. Dimmers will be connected to timers that will change the lighting as it hits the figures.

USX's Hamilton said he didn't know how much money had been donated by about 30 corporations and foundations that are aiding the project. He said most of the labor and materials had been donated.

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