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Friday, May 4, 2012

The History of the Woonsocket Cross

There is a lot of confusion right now about the Woonsocket Cross at the center of a controversy caused by a letter sent by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine demanding the removal of said cross from public land. I don't want to address the various legal arguments surrounding the validity of the First Amendment claims being made as regards the cross, instead I want to discuss the actual history of the cross itself, because when I guested on The John DePetro Show to discuss the issue, and later that day when I attended to pro-Cross rally, there was information going around that was just plain wrong.

The current story of the cross is that it was erected in 1921 in honor of World War I hero and Woonsocket native William Jolicoeur. There it sat until 1952, when the monument was rededicated to three brothers who died in service to the country during and immediately following World War II, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, sons of Bernadette Gagne. Originally the monument was an island in the middle of the street, but after flooding in 195? traffic patterns were moved and the monument found itself in the middle of a Fire Station parking lot. There the monument stood, mostly untended and ignored, falling into terrible disrepair, until the FFRF made their complaint and the story made national headlines. The monument, according to this story, is 91 years old. Much of this is simply wrong.

The truth is that the monument was built in 1952. In 1921 the small patch of land, a traffic island really, was dedicated to William Jolicoeur, called, because of the French immigrants that made up the majority of Woonsocket at the time, "Place Jolicoeur." At the time of the dedication of Place Jolicoeur nine other sites were also dedicated to fallen Woonsocket WWI vets in ceremonies celebrating a visit from the supreme commander of allied forces during the war, Marshall Foch.

There was no monument at Place Jolicoeur when it was dedicated. Above is a photo on a monument site from a Woonsocket newspaper showing William Jolicoeur's brother Albert placing a wreath on the telephone pole. Had the cross been in existence then, Albert would have laid the wreath on the cross, I am sure.

It was in 1952 that the monument, complete with the controversial cross on top, was erected on the small traffic island known as Place Jolicoeur. This makes sense, because if you think about it, WWI memorials were seldom adorned with crosses or other religious symbols. Note that this case seems rather singular in the nation. Why would this particular monument, if erected in 1921, be such an obvious exception to the rule of erecting secular monuments to our fallen soldiers? There were nine other sites around the City of Woonsocket that were dedicated to WWI veterans who gave their lives, but there is only one cross.

The monument itself is not dedicated to William Jolicoeur. The land the monument rests on is, but the monument itself is only dedicated to the three Gagne brothers. There was no "re-dedication" as some news outlets reported, there was simply the dedication of the cross monument in honor of the Gagne brothers and their long suffering mother that was constructed on Place Jolicoeur. You can read this on the plaque:

PLACE JOLICOEUR
DEDICATED BY MARSHALL FOCH
NOV. 13, 1921
IN MEMORY OF WILLIAM JOLICOEUR
WORLD WAR I HERO
------ --- -----
MEMORIAL IN HONOR OF
GAGNE BROTHERS
WORLD WAR II
ALEXANDRE - HENRI - LOUIS
SONS OF BERNADETTE GAGNE
DEDICATED BY D.A.V. MAY 30, 1952

According to the lawyer advising the Woonsocket City Council, Woonsocket allowed "disabled American veterans, a group called the Eagles" permission to build a monument of their choosing in March, 1952. The photo shows the dedication of the monument from May 1952:


This more accurate history of the monument changes some of the context of the monument's historicity. The monument was constructed at a time of Cold War fear in the United States, and religiosity, particularly Christian religiosity, experienced a huge uptick. "In God We Trust" was added to our money in 1956, "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and President Truman issued the first Presidential Declaration in favor of The National Day of Prayer in 1952.

An anti-Communistic religious fervor had gripped the country, and was being expressed through very public displays of overt Christianity. The wall separating Church and State was allowed to crumble during this period. Seen in this light, the Woonsocket Cross is simply another manifestation of anti-Constitutional religious encroachment into our secular government.

As a result, I think the cross needs to be moved to private land. This is my personal opinion, and should not be confused as having anything to do with the official position of any group I am affiliated with, or any other members of my family.

44 comments:

  1. You have no respect for our veterans do you? How would you like it if there was an atheist symbol (If there is one) and we Christians wanted it removed?! I bet you wouldn't like it now would you! So leave the cross alone, stay out of my city and move to china!

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    1. As an atheist, I would very much support removing an atheistic symbol to private land as well.

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    2. An as atheist, I would be fighting right alongside you to have it removed. No religious statements of ANY KIND belong on government property.

      Also, this isn't about disrespecting veterans. It's about following the Constitution that these veterans fought to uphold and protect.

      Please, in the future, don't make assumptions on behalf of what atheists would do or say. You obviously have no clue.

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    3. You have no respect for our Constitution, do you? By extension you have no respect for our veterans, who have fought to protect our nation and our Constitution.

      Sectarian symbols on public land/supported by tax dollars violate the Constitution. Would you appreciate a so-called "war memorial" topped with a crescent moon, a pentacle or a sign stating "there are no gods"? I doubt you would. So perhaps you can understand why your religious symbols aren't appreciated. Put them on your property, wear them on your body, fill every last inch of your church's property with them, but don't think you have the right to erect them on the public land that is for everyone.

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    4. Thank you TerranRich for your reply to ONE NATION...it is appalling how many people simply don't "want" to get it.

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    5. No atheist belong in our country that was built on christianity and as previous stated "One nation under God". You shameful disrepecting fools. This memorial changes your life in no way, just respect those that died for your right to even make foolish demands.

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  2. I have nothing but the deepest respect for veterans, including close friends who are veterans and atheists. I offered my opinion only, backed with historic evidence. There's no need for anger.

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    1. Yeah but NO one (Not even the the court) should have the right to DICTATE how we expresses our religion or how we honor our veterians! The cross stays where it is and how it is! I would rather DIE than have that cross removed!

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    2. What about the Constitution? What about legal precedent that goes back nearly 60 years? Can those dictate whether religious statements belong on government property? Just because the law disagrees with your religious views, doesn't necessarily mean the law is wrong. We live in a secular nation, where the government must remain neutral in matters of religion, in order to ensure ALL our rights and freedoms.

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    3. One Nation Under God....if the cross stays "how it is," we won't have to worry about moving it, because it will fall apart. If this memorial to veterans is so extremely important to you, why have you allowed it to crumble? Seems like none of you folks in Woonsocket really gave a damn about it until someone protested it.

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    4. You know what I mean. And WHEN we win this case we're going to use the donations given to protect the cross will be used to repair it AND put up ANOTHER monument in honor of the mother of the Gagne brother's Mother.

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    5. Yes, there is freedom of religion, and freedom to have no religion. However, this does not give anyone the right to take away from those that beleive.

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  3. We atheists don't need symbols. And if we did, we sure wouldn't want them put on public property. Quit your persecution routine. Also, you're obviously super old, as your fear of communism attests. Don't force your belief on us, we won't force science or logic on you.

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    1. Actually I'm 16 and believe in theistic evovlution! If the Big bang happened then God willed it ti be so!

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    2. I just don't like it when the goverment that's based on freedom OF religion all of a sudden start acting like a goverment based on freedom FROM religion and start dictating hw we can or cannot honor our veterans!

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    3. Oh, you poor child. Learn more science, then get back to us. Theistic evolution indeed. There's a reason why school is for learnin' and church is for prayin', not the other way around.

      Once you learn about the Constitution in school (NOT in church, remember that), then you will be better informed to debate this.

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    4. One Nation Under God: While I agree that this monument is constitutional, both sides (including your statements) are overly simplifying the Establishment Clause. Courts can and do tell the *government,* not private citizens, how they can express religious beliefs. We have both freedom of and freedom from religion in this country. Not only do private citizens have the freedom to worship as they wish, they also have freedom from being forced to worship against their will as well as freedom from anything touching on a government establishment of religion. This is the Supreme Law of the Land.

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    5. If you atheists choose to not have a symbol and choose not to display your non-beliefs. That is great. However, others have a chosen symbol and want to display it. We don't want to be like you. Quit persecuting us.

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    6. I'm just tired of the government supporting atheism! How can a small white cross on a war monument be unconstitutional? What's next? The crosses on the tombstones in public cemeteries? The cross-like electricity polls that are allover the country? What about all the monuments with religious symbols in D.C (and trust me there are many of those) are you going after those too? When dose this stop?! A country without religious symbols on public land is an atheist country! America may not be a christian country but it's also not an atheist country ether! So why can't religion and atheism coexist and stop strangling each others throats?!

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  4. Michael (One Nation Under god)

    I am one hundred percent in favor of religious freedom, and would fight side by side with you if it were threatened. However, I also believe that I have no right to push my religion (or lack thereof) on other people through the use of government.

    The issue in Woonsocket is complicated because the monument honors veterans. But if you look around, there are thousands of monuments that honor veterans, and nobody is complaining about the, We are all good, patriotic Americans, and we all love our country. We disagree on an issue, and that's fine. We can discuss the issue without resorting to questioning the basic integrity of those involved.

    That said, this particular memorial to veterans has a large religious symbol on top, a religious symbol not found on the vast majority of war memorials. Of the ten WWI memorials dedicated at the same time as Place Jolicoeur, only one has a cross. A cross that was erected in 1952 during the cold war hysteria when everyone in this country was afraid of communists, and clung more tightly to their religion.

    I'm suggesting a compromise. I understand from the tenor of the public debate that this compromise will not be taken, but I suggest it anyway on my little blog: Move the monument to private land. Place Jolicoeur will be restored to it's pre-1952 Constitutional issue-free condition, and the monument will be cared for better than the city ever did by a Veterans or church group.

    But instead, this issue will be going to court, and I regret that. I would never have complained about the cross, or made an issue about it. Looking at the cross in person, I see that it is crumbling, literally falling apart. Had no complaint been made, that monument would have continued to fall apart. So perhaps some good will come out of this. Americans will give some thought to how they treat our veterans, which I'm sure you will agree isn't always well.

    I want the best thing to come out of this situation, and see no reason for anything but thoughtful, reasoned debate.

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  5. Thank you for correcting many of the misconceptions. I still believe the cross is constitutional for the same reasons as I did before. The cross does not then echo Mr. Jolicoeur's grave marker in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France, but rather the grave markers in the Normandy American Cemetery in France.

    Whether the monument was constructed in 1921 or 1952, enough time has passed for this monument, with many different layers of interpretation, to fall under the Van Orden standard where it can be assumed that the less divisive interpretation dominates.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Also, putting the cross on private land is not a satisfactory or fair resolution. By having the cross on city property, it is the speech of the people of Woonsocket who are honoring fallen members of their community. If you move it to private property, it becomes the speech of the property owner.

      Your linking the monument with "In God We Trust," "Under God," etc. is purely circumstantial.

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  6. I disagree wholeheartedly with moving or altering this memorial in any way. The Gagne brothers, presumably French Canadian Catholics, can be memorialized under an symbol which the family or another qualified to speak on their behalf believes represents their sacrifice. This cross is not a malicious or deliberate attack on the constitution, nor is it being offered as an endorsement by the state or municipal government of the Catholic church. I will point out that there are religious symbols galore adorning the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery for precisely this purpose, they are symbols of the individual being memorialized and not pawns to further a political agenda on either side. Coming on the heels of the removal of the Cranston West prayer, I believe this is viewed by many to be the same issue. It is not. This is a memorial to a group of men who identified with the symbolism of the cross, it is in a public setting not designated for education or governance and therefore cannot be construed as a real threat to the separation of church and state. Those creating this controversy, I respectfully submit, are misguided in their efforts.

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    1. Finally someone who understands what I'm saying! But in more detail thank you! :-)

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    2. Very well put. Thank you Matt.

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  7. Arlington cemetary is a good example of how a public memorial can respect and portray the religion of individuals. At Arlington, at a glance, it is obvious that each symbol is the headstone honoring one body. The Rhode Island cross, by contrast, has no such clear purpose that can be read at a glance. One must read the text on the monument (as well as some additional material, such as this blog entry) to understand that it isn't just there as a religious advertisement.

    For reference, the Utah courts have ruled that 12-foot crosses can not be used to mark highway sites where troopers have died. The Supreme court has chosen not to hear the case, letting the ruling stand. Like the RI memorial, these crosses have no obvious purpose other than to advertise Christianity.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/us/justices-decline-case-on-highway-crosses.html

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    1. The differences in that case were that the State of Utah did not have a policy in place to offer alternate symbols to fallen troopers of different faiths. Also, the crosses were newer. The community did not wait half a century to go by before challenging them. As Justice Breyer wrote in his Van Orden v. Perry concurrence: "in today's world, in a Nation of so many different religious and comparable nonreligious fundamental beliefs, a more contemporary state effort to focus attention upon a religious text is certainly likely to prove divisive in a way that this longstanding, pre-existing monument has not."

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  8. I believe in science, the big bang, evolution, and all that stuff. I just don't believe that it all happened by accident or by chance.

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    1. If you did know something about astrophysics or evolutionary biology, you wouldn't say clearly "religiously-tinted" (and blatantly wrong) things like ..."I just can't believe it all happened by accident or by chance." That is the give away that you are religious pretending to know something about these sciences.

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  9. If the local government granted permission to erect a memorial on the condition that it had to be a religious memorial, that would be an issue.

    If the local government granted permission to erect a memorial, and the people who placed it chose a religious memorial, I think that's okay.

    Allowing people to use public property to express their beliefs is fine by me, as long as there is no condition that restricts those of other beliefs from doing the same. There will always be plenty of individuals who disagree with those of other beliefs and will attempt to suppress them - so long as the government doesn't cave to this pressure, then it's all working as intended.

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  10. Even as an atheist, I don't especially care about this. It'd be one thing if it was promoting religion in a school or government buildings...but I don't think a memorial placed in the middle of what looks like a parking lot is worthy of too much attention. This is why people don't like us. At best, this is a frivolous small town issue that should be decided by the town.

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    1. I agree with you. Why should we atheists fight a symbol that we don't believe anyway.

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  11. It's got a cross on it, so what? I don't believe christians own the cross shape or nazis own the swastika. It's just a shape. The memorial is reminder. I am not offended by a shape. From what I can tell the memorial does not mention any god, so why is a cross a problem? Think of it as a symbol of death if you like or sacrifice, not christianity. I am an atheist and have been all my life. I'd be more offended by the word "god" on my money. To sever the monument 56 years later is like trying to change history. What are the archeologist of the future going to understand about the mid 1950's if we deface the art of the time? If the monument was to be rededicated now and a new monument created with tax payers money then of course it would be inappropriate to accept a cross on the design, but as it stands - leave it alone.
    Sometimes people choose the silliest causes, yet ignore the ones that should be fought like the money and any amended legal document, song, pledge etc..

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    1. I should add that what about the shape on the bottom? Dalek shape - I think that should be removed since the Daleks are a nasty race. and we could go on.....

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    2. Although I don't agree with your non-beleif, I do appreciate your rational thinking. I am not offended by other relgions or lack there of, even if presented in public. We all live here together. These people just need to get over it and worry about more important things in life.

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  12. Folks what the Atheist really upset about isn’t Religious expression it’s the fact that Christians oppose Homosexuality and Abortion!! This is what their angry about! What the atheist have forgotten is that people left Europe to get away from religious persecution and this country was set up by people who wanted religious freedom from tyrants in government and the likes of the atheist! But since the political left hate America they also want to “Fundamentally CHANGE it” into a Godless society so they can in the future eliminate millions of people to protect the Earth from over population. The left has a history of murdering it’s citizens and if there are people who believe in God this means there is something above the STATE and the State doesn’t want anyone to be above them, this is why atheist in particularly challenge Christians! Do you ever see them challenge Islam, Hindus’ or Jew? No, Just Christians! This is the hypocrisy of the atheist and the political left!
    The 2nd amendment states that the "Government shall make no law against religion OR, The Free Exercise of religion" or establishing a religion! Putting a cross or menorah on public land is not the establishment of that faith it’s simply allowing people under the 1st amendment to express their first amendment rights! Simply put the Government is to keep their filthy mits off the people who want to worship. The Public Square belongs to the public not the government! If any religion wants to display their faith on public land they should be able to do so, and rules can be established for length of time etc. by the people in the community! The Jews can have their moment, the Hindu, the Muslims and anyone else, except as we all know Christians are the ones that can't be tolerated because their message of Love and Forgiveness and Servitude may offend the Religion of Atheism.

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  13. You need to do some study on the "wall of separation" you mention.

    Why is it you cannot live and let live? In what way is that cross on a rock hurting you? It is not, contrary to your position, against the law to have a Christian symbol on public property. If that cross has no meaning for you, then why can't you just ignore it, leave it alone, and let those for whom it does have meaning enjoy and take comfort from it's presence? The actions of the FFRF and yourself amount to selfishness and childishness. You just cannot be tolerant of other's beliefs and practices, so you must demand that those others cannot keep the symbols and practices that have been in place for decades and thousands of years before you were ever thought of. Does it ever occur to you to exert the tolerance you demand? Does it ever occur to you to just leave them alone, and let them have their stone idol? Or did your court case convince you that you should get to have your spoiled little child way whenever you want it? As stated above, just live and let live. Grow up.

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    1. They need to just remember that turn about is fair play.

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  14. The establishment clause also means that the country cannot support atheism ether. So why can't we just put all the faiths in the blender and put monuments with all kinds of religious symbols in the public so there won't be any favoritism.

    Oh and RURIGHT don't you mean the first amendment?

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  15. And if we lose this case then America is no longer the country of the free to me!

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