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 New Brunswick Reunion Celebrates Acadian Culture
LIANE HANSEN, Host: More than 70,000 Acadians are in New Brunswick, Canada for a world-wide family reunion this week. The meeting is billed as the first repatriation since the English expelled French settlers from what's now Nova Scotia. Many Acadian descendants live in the United States, the best-known in Louisiana, where Cajun food and music is widely celebrated. In New England, however, the culture is waning, and many hope this reunion will help rejuvenate it. From member station WBUR, Jennifer Ludden prepared our report.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, Reporter: Here in the drawers and on the shelves of the American-Canadian Genealogical Library in Manchester, New Hampshire, Acadian descendants can research their ancestors. Acadian names have married and melded with Quebecoi [sp] and English, yet the diligent can trace the generations all the way back to the first 47 families who left France to settle Acadia.

CONSTANCE EBER-HAMILL, Director, Genealogical Library: [speaks French], and that's my name and my line. `Kaci' [sp] - that's `Casey.'

LUDDEN: Constance Eber-Hamill [sp] directs the Genealogical Library, and knows in detail the history of the Acadian expulsion - how English troops claimed Acadia as Nova Scotia, then burned whole Acadian villages, shipping residents away and scattering families as they exiled a nation.

Ms. EBER-HAMILL: My mother used to say to me `Never forget you are an Acadian,' but when I look at my line, I'm about a quarter Acadian - the rest is Quebecoi. Why did she emphasize that? It's almost- I compare it to the Jewish Diaspora. They were so persecuted as a people that that melancholy stays with the Acadian people, and they pass it down to their children.

LUDDEN: Hamill has seen interest in Acadian ancestry increase as the Acadian presence in New England has diminished. From this bridge over the Nashua River in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, you can see mill after red brick mill - paper, textile, furniture, the industries that lured the last Acadian migration at the turn of the century. Towering atop a hill is the red brick cathedral of St. Joseph's, behind it, the Catholic school - engraved above the door, `Ecole Saint Joseph' ; and crowding adjacent streets, three-story tenements built for and by mill workers. This was one of dozens of so-called `Little Canadas' created by Acadians and other French Canadians across New England.

HENRY CORMIER, Acadian Mill Worker: I was looking for work, so I did- I took- I took a chance to come over here [laughs].

LUDDEN: Henry Cormier [sp] came to Gardner, Massachusetts in 1923, and got a job at a chair manufacturing plant.

Mr. CORMIER: Well, I came here with one brother, and the first thing I know, the whole family was there -three years after, whole family. There was also people from New Brunswick when I came here.

[sound of men playing pinochle]

LUDDEN: The pinochle games are fast and fierce here at the Acadian Social Club, where Cormier and other regulars come almost every day, and where French and English are mixed at whim. These men remember when the French community in New England was so vibrant that Franklin Roosevelt campaigned here in French. Today, though, the Social Club' s mission of promoting Acadian culture is difficult - there aren't many immigrants, parochial schools are no longer bilingual. Acadian Club President Roger Gillette [sp] has dropped the requirement that members speak French - in fact, they don't even have to be Acadian; but three years ago, Gillette drew the line when the local cable company dropped a Quebec TV channel that broadcast French Mass on Sunday mornings. The public rallied, and the cable company brought it back.

[excerpt from Mass in French]

In 1950, there were more than 400 French parishes in New England. They represented a third of all the region's Roman Catholics. Today, local French Masses like this one are disappearing. On this Sunday at Holy Name Church in Webster, only 30 people have turned out, and this from a culture that taught its children `La langue se la foi' - the language is the faith.

1st WOMAN: I'm 78 years old, and I've always attended a French Mass, and I just love it [laughs], and it's more- I think, to me, it's more pious - I don't know [laughs].

Father JOHN GADMAN: A lot of the immigrants who came from Canada had that strong sense that if they lost their French language, that everything else was going to go along with it, you know, and apparently that's what happened.

LUDDEN: Father John Gadman is one of the few priests left who can still hold forth in French, albeit with notes.

Father GADMAN: Over the years, as our schools started to close and we didn't- we weren't having the religious sisters coming in from Canada and all that to keep the language and- most of it has, you know, has really died off.

LUDDEN: Still, there is a small yet intense effort to hold on to parts of the Acadian culture. [sound of a fiddle playing] Traditional Acadian songs are revived at fiddle festivals across New England, and by scattered devotees, such as fiddler Victor Albert.

VICTOR ALBERT, Fiddler: My family, when we come here, we all sit around the room. I play four or five jigs, and then Peter takes his- his guitar, then we sing all night - like we used to do in Canada.

LUDDEN: Albert still sings the songs he learned from his mother.

Mr. ALBERT: She used to sing [sings French song]. She used to rock and sing all those songs. I'll have to get the words, and [unintelligible] give them to my children now.

LUDDEN: At their New Brunswick reunion, Acadian leaders in culture, business, and education are discussing ways to maintain and pass on their minority culture, and how to unite their diverse, scattered communities. Their reunion also honors the food, music, and stories of Acadians as they prepare to celebrate 400 years of survival in North America. For National Public Radio, I'm Jennifer Ludden in Boston.

[fiddle music]

HANSEN: You're listening to Weekend Edition.

[The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not been proofread against audiotape and cannot, for that reason, be guaranteed as to the accuracy of speakers' words or spelling.]

Copyright 1994 National Public Radio