WOONSOCKET – Hot on the heels of last week’s block party celebrating Woonsocket’s 125th birthday, this Saturday’s annual French Heritage Festival & Soirée is all about spreading Francophile cheer and celebrating the city’s French-Canadian heritage.
And you don’t have to be French-Canadian to enjoy the festivities.
The free festival, now in its 31st year, will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at picturesque River Island Park in downtown Woonsocket, where attendees will be greeted by the smells of savory crepes and Tourtière (French-Canadian meat pie) and traditional French-Canadian folk music performed by Le Vent Des Cantons, a trio from Quebec that will play the reels, jigs and songs of Quebec from noon to 3 p.m. at the gazebo.
“They were here for the festival last year and were very well received,” says Irene Blaise, who has been chairing the festival the past three years. “They love to engage the audience and get the people up and dancing.”
Dances, she says, like the Quadrille, a historic dance performed by four couples in a rectangular formation, and a precursor to traditional square dancing. It is also a style of music.
The Fleur de Lis Band, featuring Bob Drouin and Maryanne Valentin, is also returning by popular demand, and will be playing from 10 a.m. to noon at the gazebo. In 1992, Drouin received a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts to learn the playing style and repertoire of the late French-Canadian fiddler Conrad Depot. Drouin keeps Conrad’s music alive with Fleur de Lis, the band he formed with Conrad’s daughter, Marianne. Drouin is a co-founder of Cumberland’s Blackstone River Theatre, where he serves on the board of directors.
“Both of these groups are fantastic and really know how to get people off their feet to dance,” said Blaise.
In addition to the music, the festival, which is being hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts and co-sponsored by The Call, will also include arts and crafts from more than 25 vendors, an open-air market with produce from local farmers, Woonsocket trivia with Paul Collette, children’s games, face painting by Firm Foundation Church of Woonsocket, prizes and more. Bobo the Clown will entertain children from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Paws, the mascot of the Pawtucket Red Sox, will be visiting from 11 a.m. to noon.
In addition to the open-air market, there will be food favorites like French meat pie, dynamites, baked beans, and crepes offered by students of Beacon Charter School, to name a few.
For those looking to get an up-close look at Woonsocket’s French-Canadian heritage, there will be a free 45-minute historical sightseeing bus tour of the city leaving the concession stand at 11 a.m. The tour will be narrated by a member of the Woonsocket Historical Society and will include looks at the city’s historic cemeteries, churches and other landmarks, as well as the different mill villages.
Woonsocket had its first contact with French culture in the late eighteenth century when the Ballous and Tourtellots, French Huguenot families, settled in the area. The Ballous, especially Dexter and George, were pioneers in Woonsocket’s textile industry. As the textile industry in Woonsocket grew, so did the need for mill workers. The first French-Canadian families were recruited from Quebec to work in the mills of Woonsocket in the 1840’s. Once started, this migration would continue for almost a century.
Eventually, one third of Quebec’s population left Canada for mill villages in New England, where they gathered in close-knit ethnic communities. By 1900, 60 percent of Woonsocket’s population was French-Canadian and Woonsocket was the most French city in the United States.
The first French-Canadian parish in Woonsocket was “Precieux Sang” – Precious Blood Church - established in 1872. Eventually, Woonsocket had five French-Canadian parishes - Precious Blood, St. Anne, St. Louis, Our Lady of Victories and Holy Family.
Saturday’s day-long festival will carry over into the night with the Soirée at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church hall on Park Avenue from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts and emceed by Roger Liberte, the Soirée will feature more music by Le Vent Des Cantons, dancing, wine and beer, and dynamites. Admission is a donation of $10 at the door.
The Soirée is being chaired by Romeo Berthiaume, Paul Plante and Paul Colette.
Starting out more than three decades ago, the annual French Heritage Festival & Soirée was known as the French Farmers Market, but with the proliferation of farmers markets in recent years, the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts decided to take a fresh approach by celebrating the city’s deep roots in French-Canadian culture.
Other sponsors of the French Heritage Festival & Soirée include Auclair & Auclair Wealth Management, Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, Club Lafayette Inc., Cercle Laurier Inc., Conway Tours, Earth & Water Landscapes, Fournier & Fournier Funeral Services, Lepine Financial Advisors, Li’l General, Manville Sportsman’s Club, Menard-Lacouture Funeral Homes, Michaud Auto Body, Narragansett Beer Company, Navigant Credit Union, Rotary Club of Woonsocket, Soucy Insurance Agency, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, Terry’s Tire and Auto Service, Wright’s Dairy, Robert E. Moreau, Aram P. Jarrett Jr., state Sen. Marc A. Cote, and Romeo and Diane Berthiaume.
(Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter @jofitz7)