On Saturday, June 16th, the St. Anthony Community Center in Manchester was alive with the sights, sounds, and flavors of French Canadian language and culture as the Franco-American Centre (FAC) gathered to feast and honor Franco-American influencers for their annual Festival of Saint Jean Baptiste, the national holiday of French Canadians in Quebec and around the world.
Although it has its roots in the traditional French Canadian feast of the Nativity of Saint John of the Baptist, today the holiday is a celebration of French Canadian people and culture.
“While it started out as a religious observance, it became very political in the 60s because of the Quebec separatist movement,” said FAC president Jim Normand. “Back then they would have big concerts like Woodstock with lots of great music and political speeches on French rights. These days it’s less political and more of a secular celebration of culture.”
Founded in 1990 by a group of Franco-Americans in Manchester, the FAC’s mission statement is to preserve the French heritage and promote history, language, and culture of French speaking peoples around the globe.
“We’re not just preserving the traditional heritage of the American-Canadian connection,” said Norman of the FACs goals. “We have many members now who are not from Quebec. They are from France, or they are from Senegal, or they were from Côte d’Ivoire. We even have some folks from Hati who are participants.”
“While we certainly are Americans and we appreciate being Americans, we also appreciate that we have a connection throughout the world. That makes us richer and we want us not to forget that, but to cherish it and keep it alive.”
Headlining the evening’s honorees was Josée Vachon, a world renowned French Canadian singer-songwriter who was selected as FAC’s 2018 Franco-American of the Year.
“It’s an affirmation that I’ve been doing the right thing for 40 years,” said Vachon of her selection. “It all comes from a pride in my culture. This honor is very rewarding.”
But alongside the celebratory nature of the holiday, concerns about preservation of French language and culture dominated the events of the evening.
Edith Takantjas, a French teacher at Belmont High School who was selected as the Franco-American Educator of the Year, used her acceptance speech to call on the attendees to raise awareness about the state of French language programs in the Granite State.
“The situation for French education in the state is dire,” said Takantjas. “We are witnessing problems finding teachers who can teach French and other languages, there are school districts cutting French programs, teachers that retire are not replaced. It’s definitely a problem right now.”
Alongside Edith Takantjas’ speech, the St. Mary’s Bank was also honored as the Franco-American Business of the Year.
As part of its work to foster French culture in the state, the FAC works holds French-speaking summer camps for kids, language classes for people planning to travel to French speaking countries, welcome programs for new to the area French-speaking immigrants, and Prêt-à-Parler, meaning Ready to Talk, is a regular get together aimed at helping novice French speakers practice their conversation skills.
In spite of concerns about loss of French heritage, Normand said he was as optimistic as ever about the future of the organization.
“25 years ago, I wasn’t sure the Franco-American Centre was still going to be here,” said Normand. “America is a melting pot and people weren’t really speaking French. But now we’re finding that more and more young people want to learn about their French roots and share it with their children.”
Hold loved ones close, embrace your quilt of backgrounds, and have a wonderful St. Baptiste Day!