The Christmas tree at the Point, department store window displays, and the decorated Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh are a few of the must-sees during the holiday season in Pittsburgh. A new destination was added a little over a decade ago: The Pittsburgh Creche. Unveiled in 1999, The Pittsburgh Creche has quickly become a beloved Christmas observance for residents and visitors alike. Located at 600 Grant Street, the privately-owned site of US Steel Plaza, the creche is a larger-than-life nativity scene and the world’s only replica of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square display in Rome.
Sponsored by the Ecumenical Christian Leaders Fellowship
The Pittsburgh Creche is sponsored by the ecumenical Christian Leaders Fellowship. The organization represents ten bishops and denominational executives in the greater Pittsburgh area. The denominations include: Roman and Byzantine Catholics; Presbyterians; Episcopalians; Baptists; Lutherans; Greek Orthodox; United Methodist; The Salvation Army, and United Church of Christ.
Creche is a French word meaning manger or crib. St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of animals and the environment, first introduced the custom of depicting the manger scene in Greccio, Italy, in 1223 as a way of portraying the humble yet glorious circumstances of Jesus’ birth. This simple pastoral scene has been inspiring onlookers for centuries, and St. Francis would most likely be pleased to know the tradition continues nearly 800 years later.
Conceived for Pittsburgh by Louis D. Astorino
During a business trip some years ago to Rome, Louis D. Astorino, chairman of the Pittsburgh architectural firm L. D. Astorino Companies, experienced the Vatican’s Creche and was so moved he felt compelled to bring a similar one to Pittsburgh. Astorino sought approval from Vatican officials and procured the actual plans for the creche. He then commissioned its sculptor, Pietro Simonelli, to recreate the figures for Pittsburgh’s creche.
Simonelli, a gifted sculptor, creates masks for many Italian and European opera houses, articles and animals for Italian television programs, and portraits made from papier-mache, bronze, resin, and terra cotta for private clients.
Constructing the creche figures by using a wooden frame, he fashioned their hands, feet, and faces from modeling clay. These clay articles were covered with papier-mache and weatherproofed. In keeping with the Vatican tradition, local communities of religious women designed and sewed the garments for the figures.
The stable was built according to Vatican architect Umberto Mezzanna’s plans. It is 64-feet wide, 42-feet high, 36-feet deep and weighs 66,000 pounds. This enormous structure was constructed at the Civic Light Opera Construction Center, and each year it is reassembled in sections.
Cranes lift the creche’s panels, which weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds each, and JE Scenic Technologies, creators of stage sets for Broadway and local theater productions, brings the plywood and steel recreation to life.
The Creche Has Grown
Initially, the display contained only the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, two shepherds, and several animals. In 2000, a unique-to-Pittsburgh figure was added, an angel that Simonelli created, which hangs over the crib. More animals were added as well, including a full-sized camel. In 2001, a woman and child, with the woman holding a basket of fruit, were included. In 2002, JE Scenic Technologies created a kneeling shepherd for the creche, and in 2003, they created a full-sized reclining cow. Two more shepherds were added later. In 2007, two additional angels were added, bringing the total figures in the display to 20.
Recreating and maintaining the creche is a collaborative effort with more than 30 organizations and businesses donating materials, labor, and funds.
While part of the Pittsburgh Christmas scene only since 1999, the creche has already become a beloved tradition. Besides being a scene of reverence, it has become a destination where families gather to share the holiday spirit. Children are delighted by the sight of the life-like figures and several couples have gotten engaged at the landmark.
The creche is on display from the Friday before Thanksgiving through Epiphany in January each year. More than a quarter of a million visitors are expected to visit the creche during those few short weeks.
Local musical groups and choruses as well as national singers have performed every year at the creche. One year, Italian bagpipers, in the tradition of ancient shepherds, came from the village of Scapoli in Italy’s Molise region to perform.
By Janice Palko