2015-06-12 / Front Page

Goodbye, Mr. Christmas

Leominster bids farewell to Charpentier
By David Dore

For Louis Charpentier, it started with a snowman.

According to his oldest great-grandson, Jason Marcoulier, Charpentier would use a drawing of a snowman, with its three adjoining circles, as the basis for animals he carved out of Styrofoam.

He would then sketch out the details, cut out the item, sand it and add features like a tail if he were making the mice he gave out to children in Leominster over the years.

Charpentier made snowmen and dozens of other holiday-themed figures out of foam, too — figures that sat on the lawn of his Merriam Avenue home around Christmastime for several decades and drew fans from far and near.

It was both his ability to make items out of foam and wood and the care and compassion he showed to everyone he met that people recalled after Louis Charpentier died Wednesday, June 3 at The Highlands in Fitchburg at the age of 104.


This banner was put up in front of Leominster City Hall in the days following the passing of Louis Charpentier. 
David Dore photo This banner was put up in front of Leominster City Hall in the days following the passing of Louis Charpentier. David Dore photo “Even if Louis had died 20 years ago, he would be just the same great man,” the Rev. Robert Bruso, pastor of St. Cecilia Church, said during his homily at Charpentier’s funeral Mass on Monday. “It wasn’t the years of his life that we’re remembering. It was the life that he put into every one of his years that we celebrate today.”

Charpentier was born in the village of St. Claude in Quebec, Canada on Dec. 10, 1910. He and his family came to Leominster in 1923, when he was 12 years old, five years after he started carving.

Charpentier worked in the plastics industry, and along the way got his amateur fly weight boxing license. During World War II, he worked at Fort Devens, helping disabled veterans with their rehabilitation.

After moving to Merriam Avenue in Leominster in 1949, Charpentier’s yearly tradition of making figures out of foam and displaying them on the front lawn at Christmas began. He created more than 160 of them, many of them life-sized.

“Styrofoam is a very unforgiving medium,” Bruso said. “If you make a mistake, throw it away. There’s no patching it up.”

It is estimated that between 5,000 and 7,000 people would sign his guestbook each year.

Planning for the annual Christmas display actually started on Thanksgiving, Marcoulier said, with Charpentier asking if anyone would be willing to help put up decorations the next day.

“As a kid, the thought of taking the next day, which we had off from school, to get up early and to set up those 160- plus decorations was not an easy sell,” Marcoulier recalled during his eulogy at Monday’s Mass. “But, with the eventual promise of doughnuts and pizza, we reluctantly volunteered.

“The next morning, as the day progressed, people driving by would stop and say ‘hi,’” he added. “They would toot their car horns, and I eventually grew to realize that to the city of Leominster, to his community, this meant that Christmas, the real meaning of Christmas, had just begun. … It was the community pausing from their holiday preparations to experience the magic of Christmas that Pépère was creating, Christmas as it should be.”

According to City Council President Richard Marchand, there was a year when the display almost didn’t happen. It was the year that Charpentier’s wife, Gladys, passed away. When the figurines didn’t appear on Merriam Avenue the day after Thanksgiving, people started looking for them.

“As it turned out, he was just basically heartbroken, and didn’t have the spirit or the spunk to be able to do anything,” Marchand said.

So, he said, a dozen off-duty firefighters agreed to go to Charpentier’s house and put up the display for him.

“Louis instructed them where the items were,” Marchand said. “They went up in the attic, they pulled them out, and he was on the front lawn orchestrating the whole thing. It was pretty special.”

Last year, Charpentier decided to slow down and give many of his carvings to the city. After restoration and repairs were done in early December, they were put on display at Leominster City Hall alongside the entries in the annual Festival of Trees.

Charpentier also made animals out of foam, ranging from elephants to farm animals, and even his pet dog, Bruso pointed out. He was perhaps best known for creating foam mice, with their red ears and tails, and making them hop out of his hand with a flick of his wrist.

“He was a constant student of the natural world around him,” Marcoulier said, “noticing the slightest detail of the way an object was manufactured, how a flower bloomed, or the intricacies of an animal’s form or its posture. He was truly in love with the world that he inhabited.”

“His inspiration was his life, the choices that he made with his life,” Bruso said. “That became his inspiration. That’s what led him to create what he did. A lot of his work was religious, based on his faith.”

Charpentier made crucifixes of various sizes, from smaller ones that were raffled off or given to people who asked to a lifesized crucifix he made in 1960 from a single piece of oak that hangs above the altar at St. Cecilia Church, where Charpentier attended for many years.

He also made foam replicas of both the former (and smaller) St. Cecilia Church and the current building, which opened in 1933. The foam carving of the larger building was part of the church’s float in the city’s Bicentennial Parade in 1987, Bruso said.

Both sculptures were on the altar for Charpentier’s funeral. Some people went up after the service to take a closer look.

Marcoulier said his great-grandfather loved to visit the city’s schools and demonstrate how to carve animals out of Styrofoam.

“I think at one point every child in the city of Leominster had carved a Styrofoam animal with Louis Charpentier,” said City Councilor Gail Feckley, who noted her three sons (aged 18-39) got a visit from him at Johnny Appleseed Elementary School.

No matter where he went, whether it was celebrating his 104th birthday in December at City Hall with dozens of friends and well-wishers or spending time with family in the summer, Charpentier was never seen without his signature bow tie.

When people stopped by to do a story on him or to pick up a piece he made for them, Charpentier would invite them into his workshop downstairs. One person who got a tour was City Councilor David Cormier, who asked Charpentier to make a replica crucifix for him.

“He opened the door and said, ‘Come on in,’ and of course about an hour to an hour and a half later I finally left,” Cormier said. “He gave me a tour of his workshop down in his basement. He showed me all the carvings he had out back, in his porch. It was just amazing.”

City Council Vice President James Lanciani Jr. also has something made by Charpentier that he said he treasures: A sign announcing that Lanciani was named Citizen of the Year in 1998.

“Louis Charpentier made this and gave it to me,” Lanciani said Monday night. “As you can see, I did use it probably for six months until I said, ‘No, I’m not going to see that thrown away.’ So, here it is. It’s at my home.”

Charpentier was a Citizen of the Year recipient himself, getting the award in 1982. Two years later, a tree was planted at the entrance of the Leominster Public Library in his honor.

Charpentier was invited by the Smithsonian Institution in 1988 to demonstrate his wood and foam carving skills for two weeks, according to his obituary notice from Simard Funeral Home.

The Louis Charpentier Playground on Third Street was named for him in 2000. It’s in the same neighborhood, in the French Hill section of the city, where he and his family lived after coming to Leominster.

On Monday morning, Marcoulier thanked his pépère for the lessons he taught him and the rest of the family, such as how to admire the world, be patient and kind, and love everything that life has to offer.

“We’ll always remember what you have taught us,” he said, “and we will always start with a snowman.”

Contributions in memory of Louis Charpentier may be made to the Maryann/ Louis Charpentier Scholarship Fund, c/o Narragansett Regional School District, 464 Baldwinville Road, Baldwinville, MA 01436.

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