Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
The modest person who takes a stand and makes a great impact isn’t only the fiction of a movie or novel. One humble person’s belief can make a great impact that resonates across state after state and affects many people. But unlike fiction’s usually finale, hardly anyone would know who that person was.
Donald Creatore, who passed away in mid-January in Connecticut, was one of those unsung heroes. A plumber by trade, he got to the point where he was not going to take ‘no’ again for an answer when it came to his faith. The major case and his decision was about putting up a Nativity set on public land at his town hall green in Trumbull, Connecticut.
And it took nearly a whirlwind trip from lower and appeals courts to the Supreme Court and back again to the lower court, but he got the green light to put up the Nativity on the town hall green.
A quiet man, a humble man, and a man of principles beat the big guys who wanted to stifle a religious display at Christmas. But Don Creatore didn’t do it only for himself. In fact, he shied away from credit.
Years ago when I spoke to him about it, he modestly brushed aside credit for getting the crèche there on display.
When Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, Becket Fund’s founder and president emeritus heard about Creatore’s passing, he told me, "Don Creatore was an unassuming hero. He didn't hesitate for a second to file a federal lawsuit. But when I tried to honor him for it at our annual dinner, he hid behind the flowers. "
The Trumbull crèche became a national story, and the Knights’ victory up to the U.S. Supreme Court encouraged groups to display Nativity scenes at Christmas on public property throughout the United States.
In the early 1990s, Creatore was a member of the local St. Theresa Council 2961. During his years with the Knights he was everything from pro-life chairman deputy grand knight. He and two fellow Knights noticed that a menorah on the Town Hall green on display for 16th year and they hoped to add a crèche.
Creatore spoke with Trumbull’s first selectman (mayor) who said Yes, then No, then said they could display the crèche with a permit the next year. In 1994 he got the permit. Then three days before the crèche was to go up, first selectman called to tell him permit or not, the Knights couldn’t put up the Nativity scene because there was to be no menorah that year.
Retelling the story a few years ago, Creatore said he was told, “We’re going to be showing favoritism to one religion.” But this time being refused again wasn’t an option. He wasn’t taking No for an answer.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights referred him to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. Hasson, the Becket Fund’s founder and active president, together with another lawyer, met with Creatore.
“Talk about divine intervention to find the attorney like this,” Creatore said in retelling the story. “We were blessed.”
Working all pro bono, the Becket Fund tried to get a temporary restraining order and injunction so the crèche could go up as planned. The local federal court said No. Creatore and Hasson immediately went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York where, as expected, they lost again. Next, they appealed to the Supreme Court. Early in 1995, the court heard the case the same day it decided another case in favor of a private display of a simple cross on the Ohio State Capitol grounds. The Supreme Court vacated the appeals court’s decision and remanded the case back to the Second Circuit, then to the district court. Result? This time the court ruled in their favor. The Knights were permitted to display their crèche — for 10 days.
Up went the Nativity scene in December 1995. Creatore asked a local priest to come for a blessing that first night. He also said he “made it a point to personally invite the first selectman, who did attend,” because Creatore “wanted to start in a good way.” Both invitations have always continued and been fulfilled. The Knights own and maintain the crèche.
From that day on, every year the Nativity scene goes up faithfully on the town hall green facing Main St. which happens to be a major two-lane route. And on the corner, there happens to be a traffic light. Who knows how many thousands of people see that Nativity either driving slowly by or stopping at the light and think about the meaning of the Christmas season thanks to Creatore’s persistence in his faith?
“It’s what we need in our society today,” Creatore said about what he always considered his modest efforts. “Everybody hides their religion and is afraid. Displaying our religion doesn’t offend anybody.”
In fact, there’s never been a complaint about the crèche.
When congratulated about his efforts, Creatore would shy away from credit. It was characteristic of him. His simple conclusion? “We’re been very blessed.”
Countless people never knew his name or anything about him. Nevertheless they can say thanks to a man who stood up for his faith, they’ve been enriched in some way because his faith-filled efforts had some affect on crèche displays nationwide.