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Lorain's 'Little Town of Bethlehem' celebrates 100 years

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    Lorain’s Little Town of Bethlehem is celebrating 100 years this year, a tradition for Salvatore Kovach — the fifth generation to put the displays together. His house, at 1046 W. 19th St. in Lorain has three displays, one in the front window and two inside, with thousands of figurines in the dioramas.

    STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE

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LORAIN — Salvatore Kovach’s home stands out on dark winter nights along West 19th Street. From the road, lights wind around the pillars on his front porch and along bushes, but a closer look reveals a holiday tradition a century in the making.

This year is the 100th year for his “Lorain’s Little Town of Bethlehem” display: an elaborate, multitier, multiroom installation of nativity pieces collected across five generations. Visible from the road and dominating the picture window at the front of his house — and most of the first floor of his house inside — Kovach, 72, pulled out all the stops for the milestone anniversary.

“I never thought because everybody in my family’s died in their 50s and 60s, so I never thought I would see the

100 (years),” he said. “Now I’m teaching my great-grandnephews and nieces. They’ll see 150.”

Kovach’s grandfather, Samuel Glorioso, made his first nativity scene in 1919 at their 10th Street home in Lorain. Having grown up accompanying his mother — who was a midwife — on runs across rural Italy, he was inspired by the handmade nativities he saw in Petralia Sottana, Italy. Kovach said his grandfather made his own buildings, and it became a tradition over the years. Those original buildings, along with those made by his uncles Vincent and Paul Glorioso, are the centerpiece to Kovach’s picture window display.

Every year the collection grows, with the centennial display spanning most of the first floor of his home. Besides the outside display, a 20-foot lighted diorama stretches down the hall, while another setup with a water feature greets visitors near his front door. At the end of the hallway are donated blue and white poinsettias — this year’s color scheme.

Each member of his family gets a nativity set when they turn 5, he said. His extended family also sets up displays, but none are as big as Kovach’s, which has attracted visitors from Poland, Hungary and across the U.S. This year, he got a letter of recognition from Bishop Nelson Perez with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

The Little Town is not Kovach’s only display. He, along with cousins and one of his nephews, have done displays at several area churches. On Saturday, he had gotten back from putting the display up at St. Colman’s Church on West 65th Street in Cleveland, just in time to switch on his own display at 6 p.m.

His has been putting together St. Colman’s display since 1947, passing it down from generations, much like some of the figurines and houses dotting Kovach’s home. While he buys new Fontanini pieces every year, including a special-edition white and blue set for the 100th anniversary, some of Kovach’s favorite figurines are the tiny sheep, with faded, fuzzy wool, from his grandfather’s original set.

For Kovach, the nativity is first and foremost about the religion surrounding the Christmas season, but it’s also a chance to tell a story — something he’s passed on to his nieces and nephews.

“When you buy these, the boxes, they come with a story card,” he said. “Each individual has a story, so before they put their pieces (up) they read the story about, well what’s this character do? … It’s kind of neat. I guess that’s what I am, I’m the storyteller, and this brings it more to life.”

He added, “If I can bring that to people, it’s good. It’s getting the message across.”

Lorain’s “Little Town of Bethlehem” is open to the public 6 to 9 p.m. daily through Jan. 15. The house is at 1046 W. 19th St., Lorain. Donations are accepted, and Kovach plans to have a raffle at the end of the season for several door prizes — including a nativity set. For information, call (440) 244-3965.

Contact Carissa Woytach at (440) 329-7245 or cwoytach@chroniclet.com.
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