PEPPERELL --The voice was soft and sweet and so close it sounded as if she was standing next to him, whispering in his ear. Build a shrine on this property to the greater glory of God, she said. Glorify his name.
Noel Dube was a 62-year-old commissary officer at Fort Devens the morning he says his prayers were interrupted in his backyard in Pepperell by the gentle voice of the Virgin Mary. At the time, Dube was old enough to contemplate retirement, old enough to think about settling into a rocking chair to enjoy his growing brood of grandchildren, old enough to let the voice go.
But Dube, a devout Roman Catholic who considered entering the seminary as a teenager, was also old enough to believe that when a man is fortunate enough to be spoken to by the mother of God, he'd better listen.
"So I started thinking, what could I do?" Dube said recently from an armchair in his cluttered living room. "I mean, she didn't give me any directions or anything, she just said to build a shrine for the whole community to promote the rosary and to make [her] better known."
What Dube did has evolved from a personal quest to a mission that has embroiled the whole community. He began with a humble quartet of ceramic statues of the Madonna and three children and went on to erect two billboard-sized murals, a series of life-sized paintings depicting the stations of the cross and most recently a 24-foot illuminated cross that shines an ethereal blue light into the night sky.
In the 22 years since Dube heard that voice, neighbors have complained, local authorities have ordered the cross and the murals removed and the town of Pepperell has engaged in an increasingly heated debate about where the right to religious expression ends and the rights of a neighborhood begins.
"He's absolutely a great guy and he knows the Lord, but I don't think anybody should be able to thumb their nose at the law," said Rob Istnick, a neighbor and self-described born-again Christian. "He needs to be held accountable to the same laws as everyone else."
Dube is 84 now, the father of 10, grandfather of 24, and great-grandfather of six. His face is deeply lined and he moves gingerly around a modest home filled with religious memorabilia with the aid of two gray canes he's had to lean on since recent hip replacement surgery.
A World War II veteran who stormed Omaha Beach on D-day and lost a leg clearing mines in Germany a few months later, Dube describes himself as a man of deep convictions who lives by simple truths. He proposed to the woman who would become his wife for 59 years not long after meeting her and after praying to the Madonna for guidance. His marriage has been a blessing, he said. And so, too, is the shrine he has built in his half-acre Heald Street backyard.
Although he's quick to laugh and fast with a joke, Dube's face becomes serious when he talks about the morning of May 28, 1982. When he initially heard the voice, he ignored it, he said. But moments later it became clear to him who it was and what was being asked of him.
Still, perplexed and financially strapped, Dube did nothing but consider the commandment for several years. It wasn't until 1989 -- when, he says, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer that miraculously disappeared after prayer -- that he began his project in earnest.
After consulting a nun, Dube decided to portray Mary as the Catholic Church believes she revealed herself in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. He purchased the four Italian-made sculptures with money he said couldn't really afford to spend and two years later a friend and his two sons painted a framed, 60-foot-long by 20-foot-high mural behind the sculptures.
Dube placed small signs up around Pepperell, and as word spread of the Lady of Fatima Shrine, the faithful began to trickle in. Dube welcomed them all just as the Madonna had requested of him. As the crowds came and the donations accumulated Dube began to add to the shrine: benches, a shed to keep literature, a sign-in book, the paintings of the stations of the cross.
In 1999, Dube erected a 30-foot-tall mural of Jesus on a brilliant blue background. His hand is extended, his face beatific, a white and red light shining from his heart.
It was that mural of Jesus that tipped the scales of neighborhood patience and set the controversy in motion. With the number of visitors approaching 4,000 a year, services broadcast over loudspeakers to about 100 people six times during the summer and now two billboard-sized murals poking out between the trees, neighbors began to complain they were living next to a theme park.
Though the shrine is shielded from the street on three sides by trees, the local Zoning Board of Appeals responded to the complaint by ordering Dube to take down the mural of Jesus on the grounds that he did not have a building permit. Dube appealed. The case is pending in Middlesex Superior Court. The murals, meanwhile, remain. Tensions continue to simmer.
Then, after hearing about an international movement from other devout Catholics, Dube decided to erect his illuminated cross. The cross movement had been sparked in France, nearly 30 years earlier. There, in the small town of Dozule, a woman claimed Jesus came to her in a vision and directed her to erect 24-foot crosses all over the world.
Since that day thousands of identical crosses have been erected throughout Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia and 53 have been built in the United States, said Wayne Harvey, who coordinates the movement in the United States through his Cross of Love Ministries in St. Francis, Maine, near the Canadian border.
Before Dube's cross arrived from the manufacturer near Montreal, he went to Pepperell's Town Hall to apply for a permit. When the clerk asked him for a site plan, Dube told him he couldn't provide one. The man who built the cross was going to decide where to erect it when he arrived. Jesus would direct him, said Dube, who never got the permit.
As it happened, the man decided to erect the steel and blue plexiglass cross just a few feet from a neighboring house near the mural of Jesus. On April 30, 2003, when the cross was illuminated, long-simmering tensions finally boiled over.
"There were strong complaints from the neighbor because of the -- I'm groping for words here -- let's say the highly distressing illumination," said Pepperell Town Administrator Robert Hanson. "It was so bright the neighbors could read a newspaper in their house with their own lights out."
The neighbors, a couple in their 30s, were apoplectic, according to other neighbors. The couple did not return phone calls for this story.
Dube replaced the lights with more muted wattage, but because he did not have a building permit the town ordered him to take it down.
As the scenario has played out, neighbors have divided over whether Dube should get to keep the cross. Several said they go to the shrine and pray and are even comforted by the glow from the cross at night.
Jen Reale, who lives across the street from Dube, said the shrine doesn't bother her.
"I have no problem with it. He's a nice, nice guy," said Reale. "Other than the big, glowing cross we wouldn't know [the shrine] was there."
Others say Dube should have to follow the same rules as everyone else and the shrine has created difficulties -- like traffic and noise -- in the neighborhood and hurt property values .
"I know people have had a hard time selling their homes because of that shrine, " said Istnick. "It's a problem."
In the meantime, Hanson says that while the town is sensitive to the question of religious expression, it is concerned about the neighborhood and public safety.
"The issue would be the same whether it was cross or a barn," Hanson said.
Dube's lawyer argues there is a fundamental difference. Because the shrine is a religious expression, it qualifies for constitutional protection.
"Telling him to take it down is an interference with his First Amendment rights," said the attorney, Edward McCormick "There's a constitutional right to freedom of religion."
The town has gone to court to get the cross taken down and wants that case combined with the one concerning the mural, which is scheduled to be heard in November. Ned Richardson, Pepperell's town solicitor, said he will argue that Dube's First Amendment protections are limited to expressions which are usual and customary in a residential neighborhood.
If this were a church or an established shrine, the case would be over, Richardson said. But since it's not, "the question then becomes can you live in a house converted to a shrine when its not affiliated with an organized religion?"
Dube, for his part, seems somewhat perplexed that the cross has created such a stir.
He said that not only will he keep the cross up, but he also hopes to expand the shrine by buying the property on the other side of his house and building a chapel that will be open 24 hours a day. Right now he does not have the money, but he believes that will change.
"I'll hit the sweepstakes or some rich person will give it to me," Dube said with a confident chuckle. "Either way, I'm not picky. But I think it will happen."