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Church welcomes Nativity scene once proposed for town Common

By Elaine Thompson/Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. (TNS) • Dec 2, 2017 at 8:00 AM

HUBBARDSTON, Mass. — A Massachusetts woman was not deterred when the Board of Selectmen of her town refused to let her and other seniors place a Nativity scene on the town’s Common, near a Christmas tree and menorah for the holidays.

Instead, 75-year-old Bonnie Cunningham and other members of the local Council on Aging were able to find a home for their brand-new Nativity scene, which is 8 feet tall, 4 feet long and 3 feet wide.

On Thursday, Mrs. Cunningham and Claudia Provencal, director of the Council on Aging, were among about two dozen people who watched as brothers Walter and Hilary "Skip" Scott — who built the stable for the manger — set up the scene in front of Evangelical Church of Hubbardston, formerly known as Dayspring Church.

Although the traditional symbol of Christ's birth is at a highly visible location, the seniors thought the right place for it would have been the town Common, where the Christmas tree and menorah are located. The menorah is a traditional symbol of Hanukkah.

"I think we should have been able to put it on the Common. It's common ground," Skip Scott said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Cunningham, who collected refundable cans and bottles to purchase the figures of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus online, attended a selectmen's meeting Sept. 5 seeking approval to place the scene on the Common. Selectmen, however, refused her request, saying the Christmas tree and menorah were enough.

Michael S. Stauder, vice chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the request was denied because of critical letters the board received from residents who seemed offended by the menorah after the 2016 holiday season.

When Cunningham came before the board in September and offered the Nativity scene as a gift to the town, he said she was told: "We don't accept it because of the letters that were brought forward last year."

He said Mrs. Cunningham said the tree did not represent the true meaning of Christmas. He said while the Christmas tree might have begun as a pagan symbol, Selectman Richard Haddad researched the matter and found out that in 2004, Pope John Paul said the Christmas tree is a symbol of Christ.

"The board allows the menorah and the Christmas tree,” Stauder said. “We feel we are representing the holidays of both major religions we have. I'm not sure where all this vitriol (is coming from) ... getting one religion in front of the other. We could easily not have anything out there, to be honest with you."

Mrs. Cunningham, who has lived in town 39 years, said she thinks the board's action is in retaliation for her years of speaking out when the board does things she disagrees with.

"I think it was just sheer pettiness, a chance to shoot me down again,” she said. “I've been a burr under their saddle for a while. They don't want to let me be successful at this dream of mine."

Stauder, who has been a selectman since 2010, said he did not know how the menorah came about or who paid for it. "I don't remember how that came forward about three years ago. I know the Parks Commission was involved," he said.

But Daniel S. Galante, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, on Thursday said the town purchased the menorah three years ago when Stauder was chairman. He did not recall why the board decided to buy it.

Galante said he actually purchased the $600 menorah on his credit card and was reimbursed by the town. He said the board simply considered the Christmas tree to represent the Christmas holiday and the menorah to represent the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Galante said he is delighted that the seniors found a home for the Nativity scene.

"I'm so thrilled that it went up right down the street so everyone can see it," he said.

He's not as thrilled as the pastor and members of the Evangelical Church of Hubbardston.

Pastor T. Dweh Wiah said the Nativity scene is an answer to his prayers. He became pastor last year after membership in the nearly 200-year-old church had dropped to five members. The membership is now at 20. Outreach is ongoing to make improvements to the building and to fill the church, which has a capacity of about 250.

"When people see the Nativity scene, it lets everybody know the doors are open, and they are open for all people to come and worship God," he said before praying with the group responsible for the Nativity scene.

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