WOONSOCKET — Never mind the drill bits and two-by-fours. Pepin Lumber’s hottest product these days is one you’re more likely to run across in a cemetery than a lumber yard, and they’re not making a dime on it, at least none they’re keeping.
It’s the Latin cross, modeled after the one atop a nearby World War I monument that a Wisconsin atheist group would like to see disappear.
Now the plain white crosses are sprouting up on lawns from Fairmount to the North End in a show of support for City Hall, which might have to fight the Freedom From Religion Foundation in court to save the monument.
For about two weeks, Pepin Lumber has been selling wooden replicas of the cross as fast as it can make them, donating all the proceeds to the city’s defense fund.
“I think we’re up over 200 now,” says Jeanne Budnick, a proprietor of the family-owned lumber yard.
“We had 18 out there this morning and we were drying the paint on them with a hair dryer because people were waiting for them,” says Budnick’s sister, Denise Levreault.
While monument enterprise might not yet rate as a cottage industry in this heavily Catholic city filled with war veterans, Pepin isn’t the only store in town that’s selling crosses. A few days ago, Beauchemin Lumber followed suit, and has sold about 20 crosses in four days, according to Anne Poirier, the president.
“I just don’t like people telling me what to do and what not to do,” she says. “I don’t think anybody does.”
And pro-monument crosses aren’t the only fundraising products on the shelves at Pepin Lumber. She’s also selling silk-screen T-shirts bearing an image of the monument, with the logo, “I Support the Place Jolicoeur War Memorial.” The T-shirts, $10 each, are made by Richard Fagnant, a member of the zoning board. Budnick says she’s heard other vendors are giving away pro-monument morale boosters, like lapel stick-ons and ribbons.
Pepin’s crosses come in two sizes, 2-footers that sell for $5 each and 4-footers for $10. They’re made from soft pine and come with a 12-inch steel spike affixed to the base with a clamp so they’re ready to plant in the ground with one swift thrust of elbow grease.
On Monday, Budnick presented the City Council with a check for over $1,100 from the sales of crosses. (She also turned over another $1,250 from two other donors).
Since May 1, the day the city officially established the war memorial defense and preservation fund, the city has taken in over $15,000 for a possible legal battle against FFRF according to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine. Fueled by national coverage of the confrontation between the city and FRFF, especially on Fox News, the donations have poured in from all over the country.
Fontaine says there appears to be wide support for the cross, even from organizations one would normally expect to side with an atheist group. The head of the Ocean State Atheists, for example, was quoted publicly as saying he has no qualms with the cross. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has politely sidestepped the fray. Even the “Cool Cool World” columnists from the left-leaning Providence Phoenix, the state’s largest alternative newspaper, dismissed the attack on the monument as “nitpicking.”
“If you were to research all the groups that you’d normally expect to take sides against the city on this but haven’t that would make a good story in itself,” says Fontaine.
During a rally that drew more than a thousand people to the monument site last week, the city made it abundantly clear that it will not cave to the demands of FFRF, but so far the confrontation hangs in limbo.
Maybe not for long, however. Fontaine said he has not yet formally notified FFRF that the city intends to keep the monument where it is. But he intends to do so by letter next week, and he will call a press conference when he does.
FFFR hasn’t filed suit against the city — not yet, anyway — but in an April 13 letter the organization asked Fontaine to swiftly provide a plan for the removal of the cross. FFRF contends the Christian symbol violates the constitutional prohibition on state-sponsored religion because it’s located on public property — the parking lot of the Woonsocket Fire Department.
The national non-profit, with a war chest of more than $7 million, did not return telephone inquiries for a status report this week.
As for the sales of crosses, Budnick says it began almost by accident. Shortly after the dispute over the monument became public, the Cumberland Hill Road lumber company made a white cross and began displaying it in front of the store, beside an American flag.
Initially, Budnick had no plans of selling crosses, but then a woman came in and asked if she could buy one. It dawned on her that selling crosses would be a good way to raise money for the defense fund.
Budnick’s brother-in-law, Roger Houle, who also works at Pepin, builds them in the store workshop. Budnick and her sisters, Elise and Denise, have been painting them in their spare time. Lorraine Corey, a volunteer and ardent cross supporter, stopped in for a couple of hours Thursday to help, Budnick said.
Though it’s hard to believe, there are still some people who don’t know why Pepin is selling crosses.
“One guy who came in and saw the crosses thought we were getting an early start for Easter,” says Levreault, rolling her eyes.