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WOONSOCKET â€” The monument at the center of a simmering feud between the city and a Wisconsin atheist group will get some special attention on Memorial Day.
There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at Place Jolicoeur, the first holiday rite of its kind at the site of the monument in recent memory.
Led by Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and members of the United Veterans Council, the ceremony will take place at noon, after the Memorial Day Parade.
City officials and other participants normally pay their respects to war monuments that are located along the route of the parade, which begins at Cumberland and Clinton streets at 10 a.m. Place Jolicoeur is so far off the beaten path, however, that itâ€™s long been overlooked on the roster of Memorial Day stops.
It never used to be that way, at least not before 1955, when a massive hurricane toppled the Hamlet Avenue Bridge. During the reconstruction, the bridge was dramatically realigned, and Place Jolicoeur, which used to be in the middle of a public thoroughfare, landed in the parking lot of Woonsocketâ€™s main fire station on Cumberland Hill Road. Itâ€™s a spot thatâ€™s easy to miss because itâ€™s slightly below grade as the lot slopes toward the abutting Blackstone River.
Still, the long-neglected stone marker topped by a distinctive white cross became the focus of a controversial complaint lodged against the city by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Asserting that the cross is a religious symbol on public property, the FFRF told Fontaine that it views the marker as a violation of the constitutional prohibition on the intermingling of church and state. In an April 13 letter to Fontaine, the FFRFâ€™s lawyers asked Fontaine to promptly submit a plan to rectify the violation, suggesting that the cross be removed.
FRFF said the complaint was prompted by an individual who sees the monument regularly and is offended by it. The organization declined to identify the person.
The dispute prompted an outcry of support for the city, culminating in a rally at Place Jolicoeur several weeks ago. At the rally, the city made it plain that it has no intentions of removing the cross, announcing that it had established a defense fund for a possible legal showdown with the FFRF.
So far, the city has given the FFRF no formal response to the national nonprofitâ€™s call for the removal of the cross. But the city is the process of drafting one and will probably make a formal announcement next week, acccording to the mayor.
â€śWe are still in the process of developing a legal response,â€ť Fontaine said. â€śThereâ€™s a lot of research being done.â€ť
Meanwhile, the city has raised well over $15,000 for the defense fund from donors near and far. Richard Fagnant, who runs a silk-screening business, this week handed the mayor a check for $500, money he raised from the sale of pro-monument T-shirts. Pepin Lumber has raised some $2,000 from the sale of wooden replicas of the disputed cross, items residents are displaying on their lawns across the city in a show of support for the cause.
The monument was originally erected a tribute to William Jolicoeur, a soldier with the American Expeditionary Forces who was killed in France during World War I. It was later rededicated in 1952 in memory of three brothers, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, all killed in World War II.