NORTH ADAMS -- The Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist religious group out of Kansas, has threatened to protest at the funeral of U.S. Army Pfc. Michael DeMarsico II on Saturday, but local officials are asking the community to ignore the group and instead turn out to support the family in the same fashion as it did Wednesday.
DeMarsico, 20, died Aug. 16, from injuries sustained from an enemy improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
"I encourage all to support the family by attending the wake, the funeral and, most importantly, by lining the procession routes to the service from the funeral home to the First Baptist Church as well as after the service to the cemetery," Mayor Richard J. Alcom bright said Thursday. "Family and friends have encouraged folks to wear as much blue to honor Michael. Our collective efforts need to focus on the DeMarsico family."
The Westboro Baptist Church released a statement on its website Wednesday night stating that it intended to "preach its message" outside the First Baptist Church. The organization, which has been known to announce protests and then not show up, picketed DeMarsico’s base in July.
Rebekah Phelps-Davis, a member of the Westboro church, confirmed to New England Newspapers on Thursday that a group of WBC
"A half-dozen or so," Phelps-Davis said, based on availability. "Every time we conduct a religious demonstration, we are going to be lawful, we are going to be peaceful, and we are going to cooperate with law enforcement."
The group justifies its presence at military funerals by saying "soldiers are dying for the homosexual and other sins of America."
News of the WBC’s an nouncement spread quickly across social media sites early Thursday, eliciting local reactions of anger and sadness and prompting the creation of two Facebook pages aimed at organizing local counter-protests.
"We are prepared. We have discussed the possibility of a protest since we first learned about Michael’s death," Alcombright said. "Our greater community should know that since [then], a team consisting of the family, the U.S. Army, the funeral home, the First Baptist Church and city officials has been carefully planning all aspects of the funeral proceedings. These plans have been carefully thought out and include provisions to deal with the threat of protests."
He added, "I am asking that all people refrain from any activity other than the continued outpouring of prayers and by continuing to wrap their arms around the family."
He also confirmed that members of the Patriot Guard Riders, who were invited by the family and participated in Wednesday’s motorcade, would "have a presence" in the city Saturday.
Alcombright declined to comment on how any protest or counter-protest group would be handled if they showed up.
While hundreds of local residents pledged to join either of the two counter-protest groups on Saturday, Robert Grandchamp, a close friend of DeMarsico’s, urged them to ignore the WBC in a Facebook post.
"These guys are jokes no matter how angry they make us," Grandchamp wrote. "Kill them by not giving them the satisfaction. We really know who Mike was and what he stood for. Mike wouldn’t want anyone to give them the time of day. Respect that. Their main purpose for being here is publicity. So keep the cameras off of them, keep your heads turned [away]."
Hundreds of local residents, as well as Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, the City Council and the Berkshire Legislative delegation and other state and military officials, are expected to attend DeMarsico’s wake today at Flynn & Dagnoli Funeral Home, West Chapels, 521 West Main St. Calling hours are from 2 to 7 p.m.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. at the First Baptist Church, 131 Main St.
According to the Rev. David Anderson, pastor, doors to the church will open at 10 a.m., with seating being limited to 725 people. A portion of the seating will be held in an "overflow area," where MCLA will simulcast the services. In addition, audio from the service will be broadcasted outside the church for those who cannot be seated. Among those expected to attend are Gov. Deval Patrick, U.S. senators John Kerry and Scott Brown and other state and military officials.
"Michael will be carried throughout the procession by a horse drawn caisson, escorted by military personnel," Alcombright said.
The funeral procession will begin at the funeral home, traveling along West Main Street, up Main Street, around Monument Square, stopping in front of the church.
Burial will follow the service at Southview Cemetery. The procession, which will be limited to immediate family, will travel north on Eagle Street, past the Veterans Memorial Park onto Route 2, turning onto Holden Street. From there, it will turn onto Main Street and then onto American Legion Drive before heading south on Ashland Street to the cemetery.
"We’re asking those who plan to go to the cemetery to head there, using Church Street, right after the services," the mayor said.
There will also be a reception immediately following the services at the St. Elizabeth’s Parish Center on St. Anthony Drive.
New England Newspapers reporter Jenn Smith contributed to this report.