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‘O Little Town’

Live nativity planned Saturday on church steps

December 20, 2013
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

You may know that St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, but you probably do not know he staged the first Nativity scene. Of course, it had live animals.

But St. Francis' live nativity also had humans in the biblical roles. Just like the one St. John Catholic Church in Bellaire will stage.

Complete with a pony and a goat, parishioners and members of the community will bring the Nativity to life on the church steps beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday.

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St. John High School students starring in a live nativity appear in costume on the steps of Bellaire St. John Church. The performance is set for 2 p.m. Saturday in front of the church.

According to St. Bonaventure in his book, "Life of Saint Francis of Assisi," St. Francis' nativity took place at Greccio, Italy, in 1223 in an attempt to center Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than gift giving and material secularism ... The resulting living nativity was staged in a cave, with a cast of humans and animals. Pope Honorius III gave his blessing and such Nativity scenes spread throughout Christianity. As time progressed, statues replaced human and animal participants in many scenes.

Despite the growing popularity of statue Nativities, and amid a 15th century Catholic Church prohibition of live Nativities due to abuses of fact and exaggerations, living Nativities continued to take place outside church walls. Three hundred years after the prohibition, German immigrants brought the basic living Nativity to the United States, where it has seen a surge in popularity in recent years.

For St. John Church, the living Nativity came from the mind of a parishioner, and its origin is also related to animals. It was during a visit to the live, animal-themed Dixie Stampede show in Dollywood, that Mary Jo Plute got the idea.

"It was always something that stuck in my mind," Plute said. "I found how God puts things in your lap. You know, life is not clean and exactly as we want it."

So among the animals, and lots of straw donated by Bellaire Hardware, the birth of Christ will be depicted at the church. While the Christ-child will be portrayed by a doll, different families from the church, as well as other volunteers and students from St. John High School will take turns playing the various characters typically represented in a Nativity, some using costumes donated by the high school.

Plute said instrumental music will play continuously. She said the event will be suspended during the 5 p.m. Mass at the church but will resume at 6 p.m. with Biblical readings and will continue until 8 p.m. Christmas caroling will follow. In the case of inclement weather, the Nativity will be held on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church.

Plute said the event is the result of work by parishioners Alecia Hathaway, Rich Hathaway, Sharon Seevers, Joe DeGenova, Doug Potts, Lou Ann Bennett and family, Tonie Sivert, Gary Kosky and Elaine Patt, as well as a partnership with St. John Central High School and the generosity of two local farms. Nancy DiStefano of Oakland Farms in Kirkwood Heights owns the pony being used, while Kim Gulla of Licked Apple Farm, also of Kirkwood Heights, owns the goat. Plute said both animals work well for family events.

"I really think they add something," she said. "Goats are really good around kids."

She also credited the guidance of the Rev. Dan Heusel, pastor at St. John's, whom she said is "letting the true light of Christmas be seen."

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