NY Church Bars Flags on Vets’ Coffins
(MILITARY.COM) STILLWATER, New York — It was an unusually cold day in March 2007 when Florence Moll laid her husband to rest.
George Moll had died unexpectedly in his bed at age 75 after a life of service.
He served aboard the USS Allagash during the Korean War, worked 31 years for railroads and volunteered at veterans groups in Stillwater and Mechanicville for decades.
A dedicated parishioner of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, he lit a candle for an ill relative the evening before he died.
But his funeral service at St. Peter’s — his lifelong church — upset his widow and family. Priests at the parish formerly allowed American flags to drape coffins in the entryway of the church before replacing them with cloth coverings known as palls. However, the new parish administrator at the time, the Rev. James Kane, strictly enforced a Catholic church rule that all non-Christian symbols, including flags, not rest on or near coffins in churches.
The veteran’s casket left the church without an American flag around it, Florence Moll said. “They had to put the flag on in the freezing cold near the hearse,” she said. “I thought it was a problem, and I was really disgusted.”
The “church vs. American flag” issue, as one observer put it, has re-emerged two years later in neighboring Mechanicville, where Kane recently was assigned to The Church of St. Peter the Apostle and Assumption/St. Paul.
The city, about 5 miles from Saratoga National Cemetery in Stillwater, has a large population of veterans who are Catholic. Residents say coffins with American flags were permitted to enter and depart the church’s vestibule in the past, and the change is emblematic of Kane’s inflexible style of leadership.
“The flag is the symbol of the freedom we fight for,” said Mary Lou Anatriello, a lifelong church member who buried her parents at St. Paul’s. “This type of demand is hurtful.”
In a short phone interview, Kane said he was simply following policy set by the Roman Catholic Church and Albany diocese. “I wish you God’s peace,” he said before hanging up.
Catholic funerals throughout the world follow a universal order, said Ken Goldfarb, spokesman for the Albany Catholic Diocese: “Only Christian symbols may rest on or be placed near the coffin during the funeral liturgy. Any other symbols, for example, national flags or flags or insignias of associations, have no place in the funeral liturgy.”
He added, “If there was some other priest who may not have been aware of that, I can’t speak to that. People are used to doing things one way and a new pastor comes in and does things differently. Sometimes it’s hard for parishioners to accept the change.”
Kane’s strict interpretation of allowing only Christian symbols within the walls of the church has reportedly angered some funeral directors as well, but none would speak publicly about the situation, citing their working relationships with Kane.
Many Catholic churches permit coffins with flags into their vestibules or entryways, where members of the procession remove the flags prior to the service and replace them at the end.
When Marine Capt. John McKenna IV of Clifton Park was buried after being killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2006, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Brooklyn allowed the flag-draped coffin into the front area of the church before replacing it with a pall and crucifix, said his father, John McKenna III.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” John McKenna III said, referring to the flag restrictions at the churches where Kane is pastor. “I don’t understand the logic and I don’t know what the priest is trying to accomplish.”
Florence Moll and Anatriello believe Kane’s policy lacks respect for veterans and the flag.
After graduating from Stillwater High School, George “Bill” Moll served in the Navy from 1950 to 1954. He belonged to the Earl J. Manning Post 490 Legion, the Lt. Fred H. Clark Post 91, Veterans of Lansingburgh and the Col. Elmer Ellsworth VFW Post 6328.
“My husband was a proud veteran, a really proud veteran,” Florence Moll said.
“There are young men and women currently fighting for our freedom so we can worship as we please,” Anatriello said. “This is not going to bring people into the church. It’s going to push them away because people feel so strongly about the American flag.”