By SHERIDAN CYR
After years of fundraising, organizing and coordinating by several community groups, the Christopher Columbus monument was unveiled outside of the Municipal Center on Columbus Day, Sept. 9.
Many gathered, both in celebration, and in protest, of the monument.
Three major players from the Southington community joined forces to bring the vision of the bust to life, going back as early as 2012. The Knights of Columbus, the Kay and Joe Calvanese Foundation, and UNICO raised funds, chose placement, designed and brought forth the Columbus bust.
Dick Fortunato, of the Knights of Columbus, has been one of the central pieces since the start. At the Sept. 14, 2015 Town Council, Fortunato presented to the council the plans crafted by the three organizations. This included computer-generated images of the hopeful bust, funding estimates, and reasoning behind the bust.
“The purpose of this is to reinforce this strong sense of history in our community, in a way that would honor the discovery of America over 500 years ago and its meaning in this particular community, whose roots go deep in supporting the spirit of exploring, discovering, inventing and educating,” said Fortunato to the council just over two years ago.
Fortunato presented that between UNICO, Knights of Columbus and the Calvanese Foundation, they would raise $14,000 for the bust and around $2,000 to $3,000 in addition to fund the cement path and small garden around the monument.
The motion passed unanimously. “This is a moveable statue, and the town does not own this building,” former Town Attorney Mark Sciota said at the 2015 meeting, “so if we don’t buy this building when the lease is up, the statue will come with us.”
At the unveiling on Sept. 9, Sciota reported that, although the Municipal Center is owned by Borghesi Building and Engineering and is being leased to the town, the council did not need direct permission.
“They are aware that this is happening,” he said, “but we only need permission from them for larger projects or major changes to the building.”
A ceremony for the unveiling was held at the municipal center, celebrating the 525th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. All organizers were present and had a chance to speak, along with other key figures in the community.
On behalf of Dick Fortunato, his son, Vince, spoke to the audience of supporters and protestors alike, tightly packed in the council chambers.
“There’s no denying that the settlement of America by Europeans brought about atrocities, and barbarous acts of violence against native Americans, and that such evil established a route for slave trade and exploitation,” he said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that Columbus discovered America, if only symbolically.”
Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus Isabella Council 15, Phil Mazzatti, shared what the Knights’ significance means in the community. Over the last year, the Knights raised over $10,000 and contributed over 5,000 hours of volunteer work in the community. Worldwide, the Knights donated $178 million to various causes and volunteered over 17 million hours, said Mazzatti.
“Columbus made a very substantial contribution to the history of the Americas,” said Mazzatti. “We want to give back to Southington a piece of history that we should all be proud of.”
Antonio Cusano, president of UNICO and Sons of Italy, addressed some criticism that members of the community had toward the statue. “This is not meant to just honor the Italian community in Southington, but to honor all nationalities who have immigrated to the Americas,” he said. “This project has received some positive and negative feedback, but because of our democracy, everyone is entitled to their opinions.”
Keynoter, Sen. Joe Markley, was on the same page.
“Those of us gathered here today, in celebration or in protest, in the same moment and in the same spot, differ on the significance of the public act we witness,” said Markley. “Let us rejoice that whatever our opinion, we are together peacefully and respectfully, all members of one community.”
A statement by council chair Mike Riccio sought to bridge the gap between the protestors and supporters present, arguing that it is impossible to judge someone who lived over 500 years ago in a culture and a society very different from today’s.
“Columbus was imperfect, just as all of us are imperfect. He was a product of his time, and judged people’s worth by their ability to fight or provide him with riches,” said Riccio. “What also remains true is that Columbus was tenacious and courageous and had an adventurous spirit. He represents, and is the most recognizable, well-known, face of the Age of Discovery.”
At recent Town Council meetings, various residents have presented arguments against the bust during public communications. Some focused on the negative national attention aimed at Columbus in recent years with allegations of rape, murder, and unrealistic claims about his discoveries.
Some voiced that this attention came close to home with the bust being placed outside of the municipal center.
The peaceful protest of the Columbus monument was spearheaded by Southington Women for Progress, but they were joined by individuals and members of other groups. They had crafted a petition that received 120 signatures against the monument in a couple of days, which was presented by Dorrie Perugini at the Sept. 11, 2017 council meeting.
One of the organizers, Erica Roggeveen Byrne estimated about 40 to 50 other people joined in on the peaceful protest at the municipal center unveiling.
Signs waved denouncing Columbus were prepared by many of the protestors. Some read quotes from Columbus himself, such as, ‘All of them can be taken or held captive,” and, “They shall be good and intelligent servants.”
Others read, “Southington says ‘teach the truth!’” “Columbus was a rapist,” and “Who builds a monument to genocide?”
“When we initially found out the statue would be put on public land we felt it was not the right thing to do, being such a controversial figure,” said Byrne.
Byrne explained that initially the group petitioned the council to not put the monument on public land, but to instead use private land owned by the organizations responsible for the bust. “Now, if another group comes forward and says they want to put up a statue, they have very little precedent to say no,” she said.
Byrne added that the inscription itself is that Columbus discovered America, which is historically inaccurate. She said that there were people here before Columbus arrived.
“We tried to talk to the organizing committee to see if there was a way to change the inscription on the plaque, and we were willing to pay for that,” Byrne said. “They declined that. We asked to be a part of the presentation, and they said no to that. So we knew we had to have a presence at the unveiling.”
Though on opposing spectrums of the argument, councilors Riccio and Triano individually thanked some of the organizers of the peaceful protests for their respectful approach.
The bust and walkway is positioned at the entrance to the municipal building at 200 N. Main St.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.
Photos by Sheridan Cyr