WATERVILLE — Joie de vivre.

That was the goal of the 10th annual Franco-American Festivities — a two-day, two-town event to celebrate central Maine’s French heritage. But it’s also a term that describes the people and the culture that moved to the area more than 150 years ago, said event treasurer Pearley Lachance.

“Joie de vivre is about the enjoyment of life,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

For the past 10 years, Lachance and other members of the festival committee have organized the event to keep the good times rolling and maintain a fading way of life. On Saturday in Winslow, the event included a mass at St. John the Baptist Church, followed by a bean supper. On Sunday in Winslow, about 300 people gathered at Head of Falls for a sampling of Franco-American food, music and language.

The language, in particular, is nearly gone.

In the mid-1800s, French Canadians from two towns in Quebec Province — St. Georges and Beauceville — migrated to central Maine, many of whom walked the whole way, said Lachance, who is also a board member on the Franco-American Heritage Society of Kennebec County. Then, during a regional boom of industry after the U.S. Civil War, more French speakers migrated from Aroostook County to work in Waterville and Winslow’s textile and paper mills.

Lachance’s family moved to the area in 1899; he was born in Winslow in 1935. Back then, everyone spoke two languages, said Lachance, 77.

In the parochial school he attended, the daily lessons were delivered in French in the morning and English in the afternoon. Over the years, the French language melded with English — Franglais, as he calls it — then disappeared altogether.

Event coordinator Karen Rancourt-Thomas, 48, remembers speaking French fluently as a child. She recalls a time when Waterville’s South End  was bustling with businesses and families were tighter-knit. Each week revolved around mass at Notre Dame and meals were fixed to the calendar days — fish on Friday, beans and frankfurters on Saturday and boiled dinners on Sunday, after Mass.

In the mid-1960s, when she entered grammar school, teachers discouraged bilingualism.

“They forbade us from speaking French,” she said. “They told our parents, ‘You’re harming your child by letting them speak it.’”

Jaime Floyd, 14, of Livermore Falls, attended the festival with her family — several members of bluegrass band Blistered Fingers, which played Head of Falls on Sunday. Floyd doesn’t speak French, but that will change when she enters high school and enrolls in language classes, she said.

In the meantime, Floyd can only guess what her mémère and pépère are saying.
“It sounds weird, but I just go right along with it,” she said.

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