In Winchendon, Wreathes Across America ceremony enters 15th year

Wreaths adorn headstones at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon last December. They were laid by volunteers in support of Wreaths Across America.

Wreaths adorn headstones at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon last December. They were laid by volunteers in support of Wreaths Across America. PHOTO CREDIT/RICKY RUSCHIONI

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 12-05-2023 5:00 PM

WINCHENDON – During the holidays, Bridget Marinelli wants people to remember those that sacrificed all so that they could celebrate the season.

Thirteen years ago, Marinelli, a Winchendon resident and member of the American Legion Auxiliary, took over organizing the local Wreaths Across America effort to place holiday wreaths on graves and at the columbarium — a structure designed for the interment of cremated remains — at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon.

For the two year prior to that, the project was overseen by John Farmer of Fitchburg, who served in the U.S. Army for 24 years and attained the rank of master sergeant.

Asked what has kept her involved for over a decade, Marinelli told the Athol Daily News, “If it wasn’t me, I don’t know who it would be – I don’t know if it would continue. We have to have somebody to remember them; I want to make sure these veterans are remembered year after year.”

Marinelli said she became involved while visiting the cemetery, where her father and grandfather are buried and noticed that not all grave sites had been adorned with wreaths. When Marinelli asked why, she was told that the funds raised only allowed for the purchase of a limited number of wreaths.

Marinelle, however, was determined that all burial sites should be decorated, so she and her husband Rick, “scoured Home Depots and Lowe’s’ and we tried to get as many wreaths as we could. We explained what they were for, and they gave them to us at discounted prices. So we went and covered the rest of them that year.”

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After some time spent working with Farmer, Marinelli became the new head of the program. Instead of local big-box stores, wreaths for the annual ceremony come from the Wreaths Across America headquarters in Columbia Falls, Maine, said Mairnelli.

“It was just that one year that I went and got the rest because they just hadn’t been purchased,” she said.

This year, 3,475 wreaths will be laid at the cemetery. That compares to the just over 230 sites decorated in the first year.

“Everybody who’s interred there will have a wreath,” she added.

While Saturday, Dec. 16 has been designated as the official Wreaths Across America Day this year, wreaths at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon will be set out on Friday, Dec. 15. Those interested in helping should arrive at the cemetery by 8:45 a.m. Before setting out to lay the wreaths at 9 a.m., Marinelli will remind those gathered of its central message.

“Wreaths Across America is founded on the belief of ‘remember, honor, and teach,’” she said. “We remember our fallen, we honor those who served, and we teach our youth the value of freedom.”

Spreading the message to young people, said Marinelli, is why she always plans her event for Friday morning, rather than for Saturday.

“As a teacher myself, that’s where it hits me,” she said. ‘So, that’s why I place the wreaths on Friday so that I can get school kids involved. Because, if we don’t reach our youth and involve them, these kinds of traditions kind of fall by the wayside.”

This year, students representing the Oakmont, Murdock and Narragansett National Honor Societies will participate, as will fifth-graders from St. Bernard’s.

On Dec. 16, each branch of the military will be presented a wreath in a ceremony which will take place from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Those people who participate on Friday will be given the opportunity to lay a wreath at the site of family members who may be interred in Winchendon. After that, volunteers will lay wreaths at sites that have not yet been decorated.

Marinelli said each wreath costs $17. Funds are raised from a variety of sources, including the Winchendon Wreath Fund. For every two she orders, Wreath Across America will donate a third for free. Fundraising takes place throughout the year.

“Most of our money comes from our American Legions throughout the state, the Robinson-Broadhurst Foundation donates every year, I do grants, almost every local police department will send me a check, and some of it just happens online,” she said. ‘All the local banks have sent a check. Business have been very generous.”

This year, the cost of the wreaths totals just over $59,000. Winchendon’ chapter of the Knights of the Inferno, a motorcycle group, held a golf tournament that raised $7,600, said Marinelli, and the Fire & Iron motorcycle club “donates thousands every year.”

Individual donations can be made by going to: wreathsacrossameric.org and clicking on “Winchendon Wreath Fund.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.