Baby Jesus once was lost, but now is found

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On Christmas Eve, when baby Jesus is placed in the creche in Downtown's Trinity Cathedral, worshippers may wish to offer a prayer of thanks for Pittsburgh police officers, a regular churchgoer, a local art conservator and an architect.

That's the ensemble cast that swung into action after the Christ child statue disappeared from the manger Jan. 27. Canon Catherine Brall, provost of the Episcopal cathedral, reported the theft to police.

The next night, four Pittsburgh police officers confronted a man causing a disturbance in the 800 block of Western Avenue on the North Side. Kuganda Goodfellow Mugala, 56, ran from the officers and threw a rock that struck Officer David O'Neil.

After a foot chase, Mr. Mugala was caught and subdued at 9:15 p.m. on Rope Way by Officers Scot Bobak, Anthony Beatty and Kimberly Stanley. He was charged with aggravated assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Officers gathered his belongings and stored them at the Zone 1 police station while Mr. Mugala was held in the Allegheny County Jail.

Twelve days later, on Feb. 9, two Zone 1 officers arrived at Canon Brall's office.

"A woman officer from Zone 1 on the North Side said, 'We think we may have found your baby Jesus. Can you describe him for me?' " Canon Brall recalled.

"Well, I said, 'He's like a creche figure, about yea big. I don't remember if his hair was brown or blond. I'd know him if I saw him," she said, laughing.

En route, Canon Brall mused on the case. Baby Jesus is part of an 18-statue set that was displayed on the Allegheny County Courthouse steps for decades. In 1998, after the figures had sat in storage for years, the county sold "the Courthouse Creche." An anonymous benefactor, who bought it from the initial buyer, donated it to Trinity Cathedral.

"It's the Courthouse Creche and where do we get baby Jesus? At a police station. God has a marvelous sense of humor sometimes," Canon Brall said. When officers told her they found a purple stole among Mugala's belongings, she had a jolt of recognition.

"He would come to the noonday services," she said. At Zone 1, she looked at the statue and told the officers, "That's him. I'd know him anywhere."

Like any good woman of the cloth, she drew some lessons from her flight to the North Side.

"This poor man ... probably found some solace in taking the baby Jesus to carry around with him as a point of comfort. I think it was tremendously poignant that when the police found him, he was wrapped in a blanket."

On Aug. 22, District Judge Derwin Rushing dismissed all charges against Mr. Mugala.

The journey of the Christ child statue held meaning for Canon Brall, too. "That you would find baby Jesus in cell number 3 at the Zone 1 police station, along with stolen bicycles, a lamp and the leftovers of some garage sale.

"God is found in the midst of the junk of our lives. He's there."

Baby Jesus's arm and leg were cracked and some of his fingers were missing. Sara Jane Studen, an Oakland resident who often attends the daily noon communion service, went on a mission.

After washing the statue, she asked her friend, architect Lou Astorino, if he would arrange to have it restored. Mr. Astorino -- who designed and built the Pittsburgh Millennium Creche, the world's only replica of one exhibited at the Vatican -- agreed and called Rolf Rohn at Rohn & Associates Design in Brookline, and got it back "within a few weeks."

The painted, plaster-of-Paris figures that make up Trinity Cathedral's nativity scene have been displayed in the entryway every Christmas since 2004. Jesus is surrounded by Mary, Joseph, three kings, an angel, a camel, three shepherds, five sheep, an ox and a donkey. It's one of two sets made in the 1920s by the Joseph Poli Co., a South Side firm that earned a national reputation for its religious statues. When the company went out of business years later, it destroyed all the creches' original molds.

"It could have been lost forever and it's irreplaceable," Ms. Studen said, adding that her prayers were answered. "I think of this as the miracle on Sixth Avenue."

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Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.


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