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WOONSOCKET, R.I. – A longstanding memorial to veterans killed in two world wars, topped by a non-descript, three-and-a-half foot white Latin-style cross is the latest target in the Ocean State of a self-described atheist and agnostic freethinkers group.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group dedicated to the separation of church and state, is calling for the immediate removal of the memorial from public property where it rests on a small island outside the city’s Fire Department headquarters. The group has also asked that two items displayed on the Fire Department’s Web site — the Fireman’s Prayer and a graphic of an angel consoling a grieving firefighter that appears on a page under construction to honor brethren who have died in the line of duty — also be removed.
In letters received by the mayor and fire chief on April 16, the FFRF asked the city to relocate the memorial to private property and for the Fire Department to remove the prayer and graphic from its Web site.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, appearing Thursday morning on the John DePetro Show on News Talk 630 WPRO and 99.7 FM, emphasized the irony of the latest attack on religious expression in Rhode Island coming during the Easter season, which celebrates Christ’s victory on the cross.
“We need another victory of the cross,” Bishop Tobin said. He added that the FFRF’s request is yet another attempt to “scrub” religious expressions from public view and is not an isolated incident but rather an attempt to secularize American society.
In an interview provided to the John DePetro Show, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine indicated he would not capitulate to the group’s request.
“I’m not going to fold. This monument is not going to go away,” Fontaine said.
The mayor said in the radio interview that he has received hundreds of e-mails from all over the country from people offering their support to the city, including pro bono legal representation if the organization decides to file suit against Woonsocket.
In the FFRF letter to the city, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Market notes that it is illegal for the city to display “patently religious symbols and messages on city property.”
Market said that both the Web site and the Latin cross demonstrate a preference for religion over nonreligion.
“Such government endorsements of religion run afoul of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution,” Market said in the letter, which requests a written response from the city outlining the steps it intends to take in resolving this matter.
Fire Chief Gary Lataille, in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic Wednesday at his office in Fire Station 2, which overlooks the memorial, said he has no plans to take any action at the request of the FFRF.
“When the mayor, as public safety director or a court orders me to remove it, I will, Lataille said.
The chief said that the department’s Web site has existed for about 10 years, and in that time, he isn’t aware of any complaints about the prayer, which is universally accepted among the brotherhood of firefighters, or any imagery depicted.
The memorial, first dedicated in 1921 to city resident William Jolicoeur, who is hailed as a “World War I Hero,” has begun to show signs of age.
Several cracks are present in the base of the monument, and a large chunk of the pedestal supporting the cross has eroded from one corner.
The mayor said that although ironic, it might prove to be the complaint about the monument that will eventually save it from falling into a deeper state of disrepair.
“If anything…they have brought this monument into greater prominence,” Mayor Fontaine said in the radio interview.
According to Msgr. John Allard, chaplain of the Woonsocket Fire Department and pastor of St. Agatha and Precious Blood churches in Woonsocket, the cross is a “landmark” that has existed for almost a century in a city heavily populated by the descendents of French-Canadian immigrants who settled in the area during the early 1900s and who worked in local textile mills.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Msgr. Allard, a Woonsocket native. “I think that there are many serious issues in the country. This is a distraction.”
Eleanor Michaud, a St. Agatha parishioner, said the Fire Department should not have to remove the prayer and graphic of the angel from its Web site.
“They have the right of free speech,” Michaud said.
Roger Fisette, a parishioner at St. Joseph Parish, also supports keeping the prayer and graphic on the Web site, but feels moving the monument to private property may be the best option.
“If it were on private property, it would cause less commotion,” Fisette said, noting how organizations such as the FRFF can benefit from the increased exposure they receive in such cases.
Lifelong Woonsocket resident Bernard Fontaine, an employee of the Museum of Work and Culture, doesn’t understand why the monument is suddenly a topic of controversy after not drawing much attention for several decades.
“It’s just a simple landmark and meaningful to those who believe,” he acknowledged.
The monument was erected in 1921 in memory of William Jolicoeur, a member of the American Expeditionary Forces killed in France during World War I. In 1952, it was rededicated by the Disabled American Veterans in honor of three brothers, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, all killed during World War II.
According to the Woonsocket Centennial History, 1888-2000, the 1921 dedication was an international event, with a high-profile visit by Marshall Ferdinand Foch, commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War I. Foch participated in the dedication of “Place Jolicoeur,” the monumental plaza alongside Fire Station 2.
The site where the monument rests was once a traffic island in the middle of a busy roadway. But when flooding prompted the city to change the traffic pattern, “Place Jolicoeur” became part of the fire station’s parking lot.
When Tom Poole, a disabled Marine Corps veteran heard about the call for the monument’s removal, he spent several hours keeping vigil by it Tuesday and Wednesday in a show of respect for the departed soldiers it represents.
He disagrees with the FFRF’s view of the memorial as a religious symbol.
“This was a memorial to some people who paid the ultimate sacrifice during two of our wars,” said Poole, 53, a Woonsocket native.
“Who do these people from Wisconsin think they are coming into our backyard and telling us what to do?” he said.
Bert Paul, a parishioner at All Saints Parish who retired 12 years ago as Woonsocket’s deputy fire chief after nearly 31 years of service, said during a visit to the memorial site Wednesday that he was stunned by the recent turn of events.
“I was stationed here for 30 years, and we never had any problem with that at all. Most of us are just flabbergasted by this,” he said.
The FFRF has taken this action on the heels of a recent federal court ruling calling for the removal of a prayer banner from the auditorium of a public high school in Cranston. The organization had offered its support, and later awarded a scholarship to the plaintiff, Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist and student at the school.
Joseph V. Cavanagh, a First Amendment attorney and member of the legal team which represented the City of Cranston in the recent suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over the removal of the prayer banner at Cranston West High School, believes the motivation to oppose the monument and Web site prayer is a direct attack on the faith.
“This seems to be yet another alarming example of the insidious effort to drive religion and therefore God, out of our lives here in America,” Cavanagh said. “Our freedom to believe, to worship, and to practice our faith is clearly under attack. All of us need to pray more for fortitude and for the perseverance to battle peacefully but vigorously for our rights to freely practice and embrace our beliefs, or else we will soon look back with great regret for the freedom we have given up not only for ourselves but for the generations to come.”
The Firefighters Prayer
When I am called to duty, God, wherever flame may rage, Give me the strength to save some life, whatever be its age.
Help me embrace a little child, before it is too late, Or save an older person from the horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert and hear the weakest shout, And quickly and efficiently, to put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling, and to give the best in me, To guard my every neighbor, and protect his property.
And if according to my fate, I am to lose my life, Please Bless with your protecting hand, my children and my wife.