WOONSOCKET – Anita Wilbur had no idea why she’d been summoned to Harris Hall, but when she found out it nearly brought a tear to her eye.
As Wilbur watched, city officials unveiled the 2012 installment of the municipal Christmas ornament, a glass sphere featuring an image of the Place Jolicoeur World War I monument.
The Cumberland Street monument, whose prominent Christian cross was attacked as unconstitutional by a Wisconsin atheist group earlier this year, was named for Jolicoeur’s uncle over 90 years ago.
“It was a real surprise,” said Wilbur. “My uncle would have been so honored, not just for himself, but all of his comrades in the war.”
The city has been selling limited-edition Christmas-tree ornaments to raise money for civic programs for nearly 20 years. The decorations have been inspired by everything from fire trucks to municipal buildings, like Harris Public Library.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said Place Jolicoeur seemed like a natural after all the publicity surrounding the FFRF’s threat to sue the city over the monument. He said the move was particularly offensive to the city’s veterans, many of whom were also invited to yesterday’s ornament-release ceremony at Harris Hall.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” said Father Phil Salois, the president of the Vietnam Veterans Association Chapter 818 of Woonsocket. “It’s a good way of promoting the monument at Christmas-time, not just holiday time.”
The actual ornaments haven’t been delivered from the supplier, but the city is already taking advance orders. Only 250 will be available at $15 each. The ceremony featured a graphic image of what the ornament will look like.
This year, Pepin Lumber is picking up all the production costs and has been deemed the official sponsor of the 2012 ornament. Since the brouhaha erupted over the monument this spring, Pepin has sold hundreds of crosses modeled after that of the monument to raise money for a new Monument Preservation and Defense Fund.
Jeanne Pepin, the proprietor of the company, guessed that the company has sold close to 2,000 crosses in the last eight months or so. Residents display them on lawns in a show of solidarity for the pro-monument cause.
“We’ve lost track,” said Pepin. “But we’re still selling them.”
Though the FFRF’s threat to sue the city has never materialized, Pepin says the group has never officially retracted it, either. “We never know when they’re going to come knocking on our door again,” she said.
While proceeds from ornament sales have traditionally been used help pay for public arts and entertainment endeavors, this year half the proceeds will go to the monument defense fund, according to the mayor.
“To continue making people aware of this treasure we have in our city, it’s a fitting tribute to be able to dedicate the monument to Place Jolicoeur,” said Fontaine.
The Jolicoeur honored by the monument was William Jolicoeur, a soldier with the American Expeditionary Forces who was killed in France during World War I. It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars, but the monument was rededicated after World War II after three brothers from Woonsocket, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, were all killed in the next world war.
Anita Wilbur calls all the publicity generated by the monument “a blessing” for her family. As she was seated beside her husband, Milton, in Harris Hall, Wilbur said she was never motivated to explore her family history before the FFRF came to town with its anti-veteran, anti-Christian message.
The more attention the monument received, the more she wanted to know about her uncle’s legacy. This September, she and her husband traveled to France and visited the Meuse Argonne Forest, the very spot where her father’s brother, and many other American and European soldiers, were killed.
It all boils down to this: Anybody who wants a 2012 municipal ornament better hurry up and get in line because a lot of them are destined for surviving members of the Jolicoeur family tree.
“I’ve got five children,” she said. “And 15 grandchildren.”
Anyone who wants to pre-order an ornament can call Linda Plays, the mayor’s aide, at 767-9205.