WOONSOCKET — The monument defense fund hadn’t even been officially created yet, but Mayor Leo Fontaine accepted the first donation, hand-delivered, all the way from Spring Lake, Michigan.
“I really had no idea this was going to happen,” said Dennis Masson, as he wrote a check for $1,000 to the fund at City Hall yesterday afternoon.
Masson said he was having coffee with his wife at home in Michigan last Thursday when Fox News broadcast a story about Woonsocket’s troubles with a Latin cross on a World War I Monument and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The self-described guardian of the First Amendment claims the cross is a violation of separation of church and state and wants it removed.
A Woonsocket native from a military family, Masson said he was already planning to come to Woonsocket for his brother Richard’s 70th birthday, which was yesterday, when he heard the story.
But as he sipped coffee with his wife after the Fox News broadcast, he told her, “You know, I don't know if they have a defense fund or not, but if they do I’d like to make a contribution.” And so after making an e-mail inquiry with Mayoral Aide Linda Plays, Masson decided to arrange a detour from his brother’s birthday festivities in Holliston, Mass., to make the donation at City Hall.
“My father served in World War II,” he said. “I’m a retired Air Force officer. My son and his wife are both Army officers who’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan a couple of times and I have another son and a daughter-in-law who are in the military.”
Masson graduated from Woonsocket High School in 1962 and hasn’t lived in city since he joined the Air Force five years later. But the FFRF’s attack on the monument rekindled an emotional tie to his roots with a fervor that came as a surprise even to Masson.
“I’ve seen this on the TV where it’s happened to other towns, but this just felt personal all of a sudden,” he said.
Fontaine called the donation a fitting tribute to the memory of war veterans.
“I’m just humbled and honored that he would be willing to donate, and from so far way, to be able to do this for the city,” said the mayor.
Masson’s donation may be the first, but similarly emotional pleas for the defense of God and country have led many others to pledge support for a possible legal battle to save the cross, according to Plays.
A big display of that passion is expected today as a well-publicized rally in support of the monument gets under way at Place Jolicoeur, the site of the monument, at 4:30 p.m.
Plays said the city has been besieged with e-mails and phone calls for information about the rally from veterans groups and Catholics all over the state. WPRO talk show host John DePetro, master of ceremonies, has been promoting the event nonstop, even posting on his Facebook page a map of Woonsocket with directions to the rally, outside Fire Station No. 2 on Cumberland Hill Road.
While the FFRF hasn’t yet filed a formal legal complaint against the city – and it’s unclear if it will – the controversy already has the makings of a full-blown, hot-button brouhaha. A local cottage industry has sprung up around the confrontation, with Pepin Lumber marketing white crosses similar to the one that appears on the disputed marker. Some have already sprouted on lawns about the city.
Richard Fagnant, a member of the Zoning Board of Review who runs a silk-screening business, has informed the mayor that he intends to print and sell tee-shirts with a pro-monument logo on them. Fontaine said Fagnant and Pepin Lumber have both pledged to turn over the proceeds to the monument defense fund.
Dedicated on Nov. 13, 1921, the monument at the center of the vortex was dedicated to the memory of Army Pvt. William Jolicoeur, who was killed in World War 1.
It was later rededicated in 1952 as a tribute to three sons of Bernadette Gagne – Alexandre, Henri and Louis, all of whom were killed in World War II.
Some city officials argue that the cross is not a religious symbol but a historical artifact intended to mimic the crosses in the cemetery where Jolicoeur and thousands of other war veterans are buried, the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.
But the FFRF informed the mayor last month that the cross runs afoul of the constitutional prohibition on state-sponsored religion and must be removed. The demand was triggered by a complaint from someone who sees the monument regularly and is offended by it, the national nonprofit organization says. FFRF won’t say who that individual is.
Officials say they won’t accede to the FFRF’s demands, and the City Council last night was expected to establish “The City of Woonsocket War Memorial Defense and Preservation Fund” to accept donations for the purpose of engaging the group in a possible legal battle over the monument.