"A story of 4 heroes who gave their lives for their country, a mother who lost her only sons to the war and their monument that brought a community together"
On October 3, 1918 William Jolicoeur of Woonsocket RI gave his life on a battlefield in France. Private Jolicoeur was one of several Woonsocket boys who played an integral part in the Meuse-Argonne Offense, a decisive battle of WWI. He is buried in the hills of France among thousands of American Soldiers in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
In the aftermath of the war, the citizens of Woonsocket led by many returning veterans petitioned the city to dedicate a number of areas throughout the city to those fallen soldiers who had given their lives in the "Great War". The square at the intersection of Cumberland Street and Hamlet Avenue was one of these areas. It was named in honor of William Jolicoeur and was rightly designated as "Place Jolicoeur".
On October 13, 1921 Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Grand Commander of the Allied Forces came to the United States and made a special trip to Woonsocket RI to dedicate "Place Jolicoeur" in tribute to Jolicoeur and to offer his gratitude for all of the soldiers from Woonsocket who played such an important role in the decisive battles of France. Foch indicated that the Woonsocket soldiers were instrumental due to the fact that they spoke French. His visit to Woonsocket was a grand event with thousands lining the streets, children gathered in song, and veterans standing at attention in honor of the leader of the Allied Forces. Foch thanked the people of Woonsocket for making him feel "at home".
Years later, as World War II broke, many in Woonsocket answered the call to service and many families lost loved ones in the defense of our nation. One such family was the Gagne family.
Louis Gagne had been working on a defense project in Newfoundland when he was notified of the untimely death of his father, Joseph who was a well respected local printer in Woonsocket. Louis boarded a Navy plane and returned home to his grieving mother, Bernadette. After spending time with his mother, Louis boarded the S.S, Caribou for the journey back to Newfoundland. During the night of October 13, 1942, the Caribou was torpedoed by a Nazi sub lurking in the waters. Louis, only 23 years old, was one of 136 people who died. His body was never recovered. Bernadette Gagne, still grieving the loss of her husband, had now lost her youngest son.
As the war raged on, tragedy once again struck the Gagne family. Alexander O. Gagne PFC was killed on December 9, 1944 under heavy enemy fire on Leyte Island. he is buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Manila City, Philippines. Bernadette Gagne had now lost her second to the war.
As was reported in the Woonsocket Call, "death's undiscriminating hand" struck the Gagne family yet again as Air Sgt. Henry Gagne died at Harmon Field on the Island of Guam. Bernadette Gagne had now lost her only remaining son.
Having lost her husband and all three of her sons, Bernadette Gagne dedicated the rest of her life to the veterans of her community and to her fellow Gold Star Mothers who, like her, felt the pain of losing their children in the defense of freedom.
In honor of Mrs. Gagne and her three sons, local veteran's groups approached the city and requested permission to construct a monument at Place Jolicoeur to pay tribute to not only William Jolicoeur, but also Louis, Alexander, and Henry Gagne; heroes who had all paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom. In May of 1952, a fitting monument was erected by these veteran's organizations and dedicated during Memorial Day observances. The monument featured a bronze plaque and a white cross similar to the ones above the graves of the soldiers for whom the monument was erected. The monument was the closest thing to a grave that these families could visit on American soil.
Though the monument sat in the middle of a busy square for the following few years, a significant flood struck the city of Woonsocket in 1955 causing enormous damage and forcing the redirection of the city streets surrounding the monument. As a result, the monument remained there in the center of what became the parking area for the city's Fire Department headquarters and has sat undisturbed for the last 60 years.
In April of 2012, the City received a demand notice from the Freedom From Religion Foundation ("FFRF"), an atheist group from Madison, Wisconsin ordering that the city remove the monument claiming that it is unconstitutional. The demand notice stated that one local unnamed resident was offended by the monument. In addition to the War Memorial, the FFRF also demanded that the city remove items from the Woonsocket Fire Department Web Site including a tribute to fallen firefighters which features a 9/11 inspired image including an angel as well as a poem common to fire department sites throughout the country.
Upon learning of the demand notice by the atheist group, people throughout the area banded together in support of the monument. A rally was coordinated by retired General Reginald Centracchio where nearly 2000 people showed their support for the monument and the veterans of our nation. Local businesses began selling hand made crosses which have sprung up on lawns throughout the state. All proceeds have been donated to a defense fund established by the city to help protect the monument from the potential legal challenge threatened by the Wisconsin group.
Residents and veterans established the Woonsocket War Memorial Committee to help raise funds to refurbish the "Place Jolicoeur" monument and continue to build support to protect the memorial erected in honor of these heroes, William Jolicoeur, Louis Gagne, Alexander Gagne, and Henry Gagne.
Mrs. Bernadette Gagne