Here in my little corner of the world stands a memorial to Father Jacques Marquette (“Pere Marquette”), a Jesuit missionary who died near Ludington on the shore of Lake Michigan in the 1600’s. He was buried here, and a marker set to mark the spot. Three centuries later, in the 1950’s, a proper memorial site was created to honor Pere Marquette and all that he did for this area.
Today, that memorial site is a public park owned and maintained by Pere Marquette Charter Township, as one of about half dozen township parks. It is also an official historical landmark, recognized by the State of Michigan with an official plaque and a spot on their website.
Father Marquette himself requested that a cross mark his grave, and his companions complied when they buried him on the Buttersville peninsula. Time eroded those original efforts, but later historians stepped forward. For roughly 100 years there has been a large cross on the peninsula in honor of Father Marquette and the humanitarian work he did here. Boaters use it as a landmark. Families use it to teach Father Marquette’s story to their children. No religious services are held at the park. There are no collections taken. It is in no way a religious site; it is a historical site — where there happens to be a cross to acknowledge the park’s namesake. And the lake’s namesake. And the Township’s. And several dozen other “Marquette” locations within a five mile radius.
Recently, a person from about 60 miles away has decided that the cross offends him. He’s an atheist, and he says the cross is an inappropriate thing for a government to own. He’s making a lot of noise about how it has to come down — conveniently now, as the township is embarking on a major renovation of the site and will likely remove the cross temporarily in order to repair the building on which it sits. The man from this other community is insisting that the building can be repaired, but that the cross must not be re-established on the site.
My question is….. why? Why should his views override those of the State of Michigan, the local government landowners, and virtually every resident of Mason County? Why should they override history? Should we re-name all the Saint Anyone cities: St. Ignace, Sault Sainte Marie, St. Claire Shores, St. Johns, St. Joseph, St. Helen, St. Louis, St. Charles –so the non-Christians are not offended? What about the name Pere Marquette itself? “Pere” is French for “father” and that is also a religious title.
Just to be clear, I would have a problem with the Pere Marquette memorial site, too, if the township were promoting Christianity over other religions, or holding services, collecting funds, or recruiting missionaries in Father Marquette’s name. That is not the case.
The township is not playing church here. It is honoring the legacy of a brave and unique explorer who documented the area, founded settlements, and established the first relationships with native people. If an individual is offended by a historical monument in a public park, he needs to get over it or choose to avoid the location that offends him. There is every reason the memorial should exist, cross and all, and that people with differing views should be able to live together peaceably and respectfully.
(c) 2017, J. L. Cools