WOONSOCKET — An atheist group from Wisconsin may want the World War I monument bearing a prominent Latin cross removed, but a throng of people rallied around the marker yesterday with another idea, expressed in thunderous enthusiasm.
“It’s staying where it is,” boomed Lt. Gen. Reginald Centracchio, former adjutant general of the Rhode Island National Guard. “It stays where it is, as it is, right here in the city of Woonsocket. A round of applause and cheers rose from the sea of faces as Centracchio’s voice boomed over a high-decibel PA system, “This is the line in the sand.”
Before last week, hardly anyone knew where or what Place Jolicoeur was. But a thousand people converged on the spot yesterday afternoon in a raucous show of support for the monument, which the Freedom From Religion Foundation calls a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
They arrived in shuttle buses or roared in on motorcycles, waving flags, wearing the signature emblems of veterans groups, and hoisting homemade posters bearing slogans in support of the monument. “Don’t cross God,” one said. “God Bless all Veterans, Past and Present. We Shall Not Be Moved,” said another. Many could be seen carrying homemade replicas of the cross on the disputed monument, made of wood or styrofoam posterboard.
Passing motorists beeped, sirens blared, and fists pumped in support of the rallying cry. When the rite opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, a roar rose above the monotone as the prayer reached the words, “under God.”
It was Centracchio who called for the rally last week, describing the FFRF’s stance as an overzealous attack on veterans.
The call quickly picked up steam with heavy promotion by WPRO radio personality John DePetro, who was on hand to introduce a string of speakers to the stage in front of Fire Station No. 2, including Bishop Thomas Tobin, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, and Lucien Jolicoeur, the nephew of the Pvt. William Jolicoeur, the soldier for whom the monument was originally dedicated in 1921.
Veterans turned out in force for the event, awash in American flags and other patriotic regalia. A number of state and local dignitaries turned out, including former State Police Supt. Brendan Doherty, a congressional contender, Barry Hinckley, who’s running for U.S. Senate, members of the City Council, State Rep. Jon D. Brien, State Sen. Roger Picard, and several clergymen.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin wasn’t there, but he issued a statement supporting a defense of the monument, calling the FFRF’s view “myopic.”
Bishop Tobin cast the dispute over the cross as a big-picture issue of a movement designed to push religion to the back seat of American life, and urged listeners to push back. He said it was just another example of the secular pressure that led to Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s awkward-sounding “holiday tree” last winter and the dispute over the prayer banner in Cranston.
“This is about presence of God in our lives and in our society,” he said. “These are attempts to render our society bereft of moral values. If we don’t stand up we are complicit in the death of God in our society.”
Revving up the crowd, he lavished spectators with praise as “American patriots,” saying, “I’m proud to stand here with you today to defend the presence of Christ in our lives.”
Fontaine made an impassioned pledge to “fight and fight and fight” against FFRF to save the cross, telling the crowd the City Council had just established a fund to raise money for a legal defense.
After he received a letter last month from FFRF explaining why the group wants the cross removed from the monument, the mayor said he researched the history of the marker and became more determined than ever to fight the group. After the monument was originally dedicated to Pvt. Jolicoeur in 1921 in a grand ceremony featuring Gen. Ferdinand Foch, the Grand Marshal of the Allied Forces in Europe, it was rechristened in 1952 to honor three brothers, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, all of whom were killed during World War II.
Their mother, Bernadette Gagne, didn’t “collapse in sorrow” or hide at home after the last of her sons was killed in Guam, said Fontaine. She became deeply involved in all the major veterans groups in the city.
“She organized the Gold Star Mothers in this area,” said Fontaine. “If Mrs. Gagne can give her three sons, I can give a fight for the monument.”
Fontaine thanked several members of the City Council, including President John Ward, Christopher Beauchamp, Vice President Dan Gendron and Robert Moreau, all in attendance, for backing the monument defense fund.
But Anthony DeQuattro, President of Operation StandDown RI, an advocacy group for homeless veterans, told the crowd that someone else is willing to pick up the entire tab for a possible legal showdown with FFRF: the American Legion.
At the conclusion of his speech in defense of the monument, DeQuattro said the national headquarters of the American Legion has agreed to pay the full freight of the legal battle, plus the cost of repairing the monument, which shows obvious signs of neglect.
Mickey Vadnais, national executive committeeman of the American Legion – the state’s top official for the veterans group – later confirmed the story.
He said he had received an unsolicited call from American Legion headquarters in Indiana with an offer to pick up the full cost of the legal battle and monument repairs. He said headquarters made the offer after hearing about the story on the national news.
Asked if there were any limits on the offer, Vadnais replied, “You’re playing at the national level. We’ve got 2.4 million members.”
The American Legion was just one of many veterans and religious group represented at the rally, in the parking lot of Woonsocket’s Fire Station No. 2. They wore everything from camouflage fatigues to the feathery hats of the Knights of Columbus. Most wore ordinary street clothes, but more than a few carried old, faded photographs of family members in uniform.
“My grandfather, my father, my two children,” explained Julie Brackett as she held up four framed images. As for the threatened cross, the Glocester resident said, “Leave it be. It doesn’t hurt anybody. I’m not a religious person by nature. I’m not offended by symbols, but these aren’t symbols. This is history. This is bigger than Woonsocket.”
The FFRF touched off the firestorm of controversy when its lawyers sent Fontaine a letter on April 13 demanding that the cross be removed from the monument, because it’s on public land. The organization calls the Latin cross, one of the most pervasive symbols in all Christianity, a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on state-sponsored religion, saying it wrote the letter on behalf of an individual who is “offended” by it.
The organization won’t identify that individual, but it says the person has no choice but to view the cross on a daily basis.
The national nonprofit, based in Madison, Wisc., has also taken issue with the image of an angel comforting a firefighter and the inclusion of “ The Fire Fighter’s Prayer” on the Woonsocket Fire Department’s web site, and it wants those removed as well.
Where the dispute goes from here is anyone’s guess. A lawyer for FFRF indicated last week that its next step depends on how the city responds to its demands and the FFRF finds out how the complainant wants to proceed.
Sammy Wellington, a seventh grader from Mt. St. Charles Academy who was among the featured speakers, said she really doesn’t understand much about separation of church and state, but it doesn’t matter.
“Moving the monument because somebody who drives by it every day is offended is wrong,” she said. “Even a seventh-grader can see that.”