By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / February 20, 2009

LEOMINSTER – A lifelong part of this community, Private Jonathan Roberge was eulogized yesterday in the church where he was baptized.

Jonathan Roberge

Jonathan Roberge

More than 1,200 people filled the pews at St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church for the funeral of the 22-year-old hometown boy, who left his family and the comfort of the familiar a year ago to join the Army and become a tank driver.

On Feb. 9, a roadside explosive killed Roberge and three passengers in the Humvee he was driving through the streets of Mosul, Iraq. Yesterday, Monsignor James P. Moroney in his eulogy told the mourners to remember Roberge as a patriot.

“His hunger and thirst for righteousness brought him to defend you and me on a narrow street in Mosul,” Moroney said. “He wanted to make a difference in the world. He wanted to make people safe.”

The war in Iraq has been overshadowed in recent months by the country’s deepening economic crisis. But in Leominster, when Roberge’s body arrived on a plane at Hanscom Air Force Base earlier this week, and for his wake at City Hall and funeral yesterday – crowds have lined the streets, often two and three deep, to pay their respects. In yesterday morning’s gray drizzle, many waved flags. Strangers stood on their porches and taped handmade messages on the windows of three-decker apartment buildings. “God Bless Jonathan,” one said.

Sergeant Daniel C. Maes of the Massachusetts National Guard, which arranges all funerals for servicemen and women from the state, said the outpouring was unlike any he had seen.

“It’s the community’s first casualty since Vietnam, so that has something to do with it,” he said. “But there’s also just a tremendous sense of community here.”

The mourners included many local elected officials and Governor Deval Patrick.

Roberge lived on Johnny Appleseed Lane with his parents, John and Pauline. He was a Boy Scout.

In 2005, he graduated from the Center for Technical Education at Leominster High School. After a stint as an auto mechanic at a local dealership, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

His close friend, Mike Denning, said at yesterday’s funeral service that he talked to Roberge nearly every Sunday by phone while he was away. Denning broke down as he recalled good times with “Johnny Ro.”

Once, the two and other teenage friends went looking for a kiddie pool on a hot day. When they found one, Roberge lounged in it wearing a snorkel, goggles, and an inner tube at his waist.

“He sat in there for hours, pretending he was a diver,” Denning said. “That was classic Johnny Ro. That’s what made everyone love him so much.”

Mark Matley recalled how his godson loved visiting fire stations as a very young boy. As he grew older, he could tell the fire engines apart just by listening to their sirens. Nothing thrilled him more.

“He was a great kid, and a great man,” Matley said. “Remember his smile.”

After basic training, Roberge was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas and chosen to become a driver for Lieutenant Colonel Garnet R. Derby. Derby, 44, of Missoula, Mont., Sergeant Joshua A. Ward, 30, of Scottsville, Ky., and Private Albert R. Jex, 23, of Phoenix also were killed in the Humvee explosion.

Yesterday, Roberge’s parents accepted posthumous honors for their son, including the Bronze Star, from military officials as Roberge’s younger siblings, Sarah, Meghan, and Andrew watched. Many in the crowd grew tearful as a soloist sang “Ave Maria” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Andrew Roberge, 11, carried a box of tissues as his parents left the church in tears, surrounded by priests and altar boys.

Crowds stood outside the church as Roberge’s casket, draped in a flag, was loaded onto a black horse-drawn caisson. Church bells and the scuffling of feet and horses’ hooves were the only sounds as the procession departed, headed to St. Cecelia’s Cemetery nearby.

Ashley Brassard, 23, watched. Dressed in green military fatigues, she said she recently enlisted with the Air Force and expects to be deployed in June, although it’s unclear where. She, too, is a Leominster native, and she said Roberge’s funeral stirred difficult emotions for her and her family.

“It touches close to home,” she said.

One Response to “Private Jonathan Roberge was eulogized yesterday in the church where he was baptized.”

  1. An Honorable Farewell « Bernard Savoie Photography Blog

    […] of yet another  young American casualty of the Iraq War.  This time it was a local young man,  Army Private Joanathan Roberge  from Leominster, MA.,  who was to be buried that day.  I live about 30 minutes away and decided […]