Je cherche l'Acadie
(Written in 1999; 2003 supplement follows)
Barely five years ago I couldn't have told you
anything about Acadie, despite
having a graduate degree in history.
As a child, I knew my mother's grandmother was
Matilda LeBlanc, and that she was "French Canadian." I
could never have known her personally, however, because she died in 1898, when my
grandfather, Frederick W. Smith, was only three years old. He knew
some of the other members of her family, but I was never able to talk
with him about it, because he died in 1961--several months before I was
How different from my experience of my father's
family. My paternal grandfather, Max Cork, died
young (at age 55), but I was nine, and have many memories of him.
I was also able to know his father, my great-grandfather Joseph Cork, who died
just two years before Max.
Joe lived in Marshall, IL, not far from where three prior generations of
Corks are buried. I remember his white hair, his voice, the creases in
his face. I remember the house, and its smells and tastes:
persimmon pudding and homemade peanut brittle and "Paw-paw's" grape
I have no such memories of Matilda LeBlanc.
She died far from Acadie, at a young age, leaving children who could not
remember her, and later generations who knew her only as a name on a
I think I share much in this way with other
children of the Acadian exile. Unlike our cousins et cousines
Louisiana or the Canadian Maritimes, we've had neither the French
language nor a connection with a living Acadian community. We have
been cut off from our family, and have lost our identity as Acadians.
In 1991, my mother wrote to the parish of Saint-Anselme,
New Brunswick, to find info about Matilda. The priest told her
that all the registers had been transferred to the Centre d'études
acadiennes at the University of Moncton. She wrote to the
staff genealogist, Stephen A. White, and on October 23, he replied:
Dear Mrs. Cork:
I have before me your letter of the 5th.
grandmother was baptized as Domithilde LeBlanc, Sept. 6, 1863, at
Saint-Anselme, N.B. She was three weeks old when she was
baptized. Her parents were Simon LeBlanc and Obéline Gautreau.
You may read the rest of the letter on another
page. It played a key role in setting us on the path toward making
connection with our Acadian family. Together with material from
généalogique des familles acadiennes, White provided the
documentation for the line of descent sketched in my
In the years that followed,
I took a couple of trips to New Brunswick, and longed for the day when I
might be able to be free to explore my great-grandmother's
homeland. But since both those trips were spent at
with the Army, I was never able to venture far from the
My wife's mother is from
Nova Scotia, and as a child my wife had lived in Moncton, and I thought
that, too, might provide occasion for making a trip. But then we had
kids, and moved from the northeast to California, and the
possibility became more remote.
Then, in early 1998, I
was looking for graphics for my web page, The
Oak Tree. I did an internet search for "oak" and
"gif" and stumbled upon the
web page for the
de LeBlanc, which included a family crest featuring the
Evangeline Oak. That page also mentioned that in 1999 there would be a Congrès
Mondial Acadien in Louisiana, and that this would include a LeBlanc family
reunion in the little town of Erath.
The first Congrès
Mondial Acadien was held in New Brunswick in 1994. In 1997 my
mother had gotten a copy of Monique LeBlanc's video about it called
Acadian Connection, so when I told her of my discovery that the
next one would be in just another year, she decided that one way or
another she was going to find a way to attend.
At the time, I was a
campus minister at UC Santa Barbara. I scoured the UCSB library for
information about Acadie, and found books by Carl Brasseaux, René
Babineau, Felix Voorhies and others. For the first time, I began
to grasp the breadth of the story, and in a sermon I preached on Holy Thursday
I shared some of the excitement I felt (see Reflections
in Exile) anticipating the reunion.
Meeting a new old family
That fall I moved to Houston,
and in May, 1999, with my little brother Jason accompanying me, I took a day during Holy
Week to make a pilgrimage
of sorts to Louisiana to visit the LeBlanc cousins who would be
hosting the reunion.
We met Relie LeBlanc at his pharmacy, and he called Presley
LeBlanc; we then went to the Acadian Museum where we were shown around
by Inez LeBlanc Vincent.
Jason and I also went to the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville, where I
was struck by the inscription on the base of the eternal flame: "A people without
a past are a people without a future." I was just beginning to
discover that past, and I was thrilled to be able to share my excitement with
We picked up a copy of the program for the Congrès
Mondial Acadien; it listed major ceremonies for the opening and closing,
with dozens of cultural and academic events crammed into the two weeks
in between, but the family reunion was the most
important item on my agenda, and of most other participants.
LeBlanc reunion was to be held in Erath, and as I had discovered from the
web page, they had been hard at work for over a year planning the event.
They had a housing committee responsible for arranging housing with a
local family if it was desired, and I quickly applied. I contacted
our hosts, and got no response. As we got closer to the event, I
tried again--and got an e-mail from them saying that they had moved to
California! I frantically contacted the committee members, who
within two days had us lined up with another family.
My mother flew into Houston in August, and on Friday, August 13, we drove over to
Louisiana along Interstate 10. We got off at Breaux Bridge and
turned south, following highway 31 along the winding Bayou Teche,
passing fields of sugar cane until we arrived in St. Martinville. Here's
where Judge Felix Voorhies' adaptation of the Evangeline story reached its climax,
with the separated lovers meeting under a spreading oak tree (with the
woman discovering that her lover has since married). The oak still stands on the bank of the bayou; in its shade
tourists can often find a pair of Cajun musicians. A block away is
St. Martin of Tours church, in the center of a beautiful square, the presbyterie
on one side, and the Petit Paris museum on the other.
Next to the church itself is the cemetery where Voorhies' "real" Evangeline, Emmeline Labiche, is
allegedly buried alongside a statue of the fictional
Evangeline, in the likeness of the star of the silent film version of
the book, Dolores Del Rio.
On the side street behind the church, just
up the bayou from the Evangeline Oak, is the
Acadian Memorial. The
first floor is an open hall. On one wall is a
mural depicting the
arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana; on the far left side stands a
figure which I thought looked a lot like my mom. She didn't see
the resemblance, but when I looked at the directory, I saw that the
figure was a LeBlanc. On the other wall, a bronze
Wall of Names
lists ships and passengers carrying the exiles to the Nouveau
We stood outside for a moment, reflecting on the
eternal flame with
the inscription I've already referred to: "Un peuple sans passé est
un peuple sans futur" ("A people without a past
are a people without a future"). Just then the clouds opened up
for a summer downpour, and we headed back inside, upstairs, where there is a
genealogy library. They were showing a video of the
With the inscription on the
flame's base fresh in our minds, we saw the story of our past unfold.
We saw the soldiers give the order for
the deportation. We watched as men, women and children were herded
to waiting ships. An old man drops his violin, and is pushed along
as it is trampled underfoot. The tyrant does not care if children
are separated from their parents; he has only to discharge his duty and
remove these people from the land.
The video was cut short when
a man in the audience had a seizure. We could not stay anyway, and
went on our way to Erath.
The town of Erath has its own little
with exhibits on both the expulsion, life in Louisiana, and previous
Acadian reunions. We took a quick look at it, and then stopped by the
Café du Musée next door for something to drink--it was a typically hot,
humid Louisiana afternoon. As we sipped our sodas and enjoyed the band,
Erath's most famous resident, D. L. Menard, stepped into the cafe.
The band begged him to join them in playing one of his best known songs,
"La porte d'en arrière" ("The Back Door"). We'd see a lot of D. L. in the next couple of
It was time to connect with our hosts, and so I looked for a pay phone
to call them. I mentioned the confusion which resulted when we
found out our initial hosts had moved. Well, "good things
come to those who wait"--and that was definitely true here. I
can't imagine wanting to have stayed with anyone else than Phil and
Shelia, who bent over backwards to make us feel right at home.
We got acquainted over supper, and then headed back into town with them
after dark for a "fais-do-do" (street dance). As bands
played and people milled about, we chatted, and were introduced to some
of their extended family and friends, and began to meet some of the
other people who had come for the reunion. D. L. Menard played a
set, but by far the best band was a group of teenagers from Canada -- unfortunately, for some reason they didn't get on the stage till midnight, and the crowd was starting to
dwindle, but we huddled close together and cheered them when they were
Saturday was the main day of the LeBlanc reunion, and it was held outside at the Erath city park
The program included performances of song and dance, speeches and
presentations. The guest of honor was the Governor General of Canada, Romeo LeBlanc.
Food and craft booths were set up throughout the park, and the community
building held exhibits on local and Canadian attractions. But one
of the most popular attractions was genealogy; there were computers with
genealogical databases inside, while University of Moncton genealogist Stephen White
gave a talk about his new Dictionary of Acadian Genealogy and
To facilitate making connections, everyone had a name tag with space on the back to write your line of descent from Daniel LeBlanc. On
the front, you placed a colored sticker indicating which of Daniel's children
you were descended from. The idea was you look first for the same color of sticker, then compare lines. We found some fifth cousins
from New Brunswick, some of whom still live in the parish of St. Anselme where my great-grandmother was baptized.
The closest relative was a woman whose great-grandmother was the sister
of my mom's great-grandmother.
It's hard to describe the feeling that
was in the air. Though there was a lot of talk of genealogy, this
was not a dry exercise in historical research--it was a way to make
obvious what we could feel and see, that we are indeed family. Some of the Canadians noticed clear family resemblance with their Louisiana cousins and were heard to remark again and again, "You don't look like Americans -- you look like our neighbors back home."
I'm a Connecticut Yankee, my great-grandmother was from New Brunswick,
and we were in the heart of Cajun country--but we were one famille.
It was August, but we celebrated in Mardi Gras fashion, complete with a
parade with various LeBlanc "krewes" on floats tossing beads
and cups to laughs and shouts of "Throw me sumpin' mistah!"
planned to go to mass at the Cathedral in Lafayette the next day, so we
didn't stay for the family mass in the park. Instead, our hosts took us to Mulatte's restaurant in Lafayette.
This is one of the most popular Cajun restaurants, as was evident by the
line: we had to wait for an hour and a half (buses of Canadians were
everywhere!). The food and the entertainment were worth it--and
the leisurely conversation with our hosts. I got the combo plate,
which included a frog leg -- I figured I'd try anything, but let me say
here and now that it did not taste like chicken. Give me
jambalaya, crawfish, or boudin any day, but I'll pass on future servings
of ouaouaron, s'il vous plaît.
The reunion activities continued Sunday morning at
Acadian Village in Lafayette.
It's a collection of historic Acadian homes clustered around a
bayou. The manager, A. J. LeBlanc treated us to a "revival" (as it were) of
the old "Hadacol Show" of "Cousin Dud" --
Dudley LeBlanc, state senator, French language
activist, and patent medicine marketer.
D. L. Menard was there (and sang
some more, his voice now growing pretty horse), and joined us at
our table for part of the afternoon.
Late in the afternoon we went to the closing mass of the
Congrès at the cathedral in Lafayette. It
was August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption, the Acadian national
feast. We didn't start for the cathedral as early as I had hoped,
and by the time we got there it was packed, and we had to stand at the
back of the church for the entire mass. Archbishop Ernest
Legér of Moncton and Bishop Edward O'Donnell of Lafayette concelebrated.
Though the mass was entirely in French, and my feet were sore, it was for me another high
point. The Catholic faith is an important
part of Acadian identity. It was that faith which was one of the
reasons why the British did not trust our ancestors when they pleaded to
be regarded as neutrals; and it was that same faith which helped them
endure years of wandering in exile. The mass concluded with the
singing of Ave Maris Stella, the national anthem, a hymn of
praise to Mary, Star of the Sea, who guides the storm-tossed to safe
That night was the spectacular closing concert at the Cajun Dome,
du Bayou. Some of the best bands in Cajun and Zydeco were
present, including Bruce Daigrepont, Balfa Toujours, Geno Delafose,
"Bois Sec" Ardoin, Beausoleil, and host Zachary Richard.
Waylon Thibodeaux sang the
Congrès anthem which he wrote, Si Longtemps Séparé, while conga lines waving Acadian flags snaked across the floor. The
LeBlanc family had a section to itself, and a couple sitting in front of
us turned around and said, "I heard you're from
Houston!" I learned she had just started working at a
Catholic retreat center that I've gone to several events at (we've seen
each other several times since August).
On the next day, we hung out with our hosts a bit more, dragging out the
good-byes as much as we could. Shelia took us to
Avery Island for a tour of the Tabasco factory, and on the way we
stopped to see one of her cousins we had met Saturday.
my mom and I said good-bye, and headed back to Houston, but not before a
stop at Vermilionville, another collection of restored antique Acadian
homes. We ate lunch at the restaurant, and recognized Bruce Daigrepont sitting at the table next to us with his family.
It turned out everyone in the room had been at the concert, so he had a very cordial conversation with all the tables around him.
to Vermilionville is the National Park Service's Jean Lafitte Acadian
Cultural Center, which features exhibits as well as an excellent film
about Le Grand Dérangement. We got to talking to some of
the other people in the gift shop, and as we started to go, Waylon Thibodeaux came in.
We chatted with him for a few minutes (and got him to sign our CD's of
Séparé). Then we headed back to Houston.
Four months after
the Congrès, I read Clive Doucet's book,
Notes from Exile: On Being Acadian
(Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1999). Doucet's
father was Acadian, his mother, English. In the book, he tells of
his own trip to the 1994 Congrès. He had gone as a journalist, but when he was
overwhelmed by the choices of activities at the Congrès, he
found himself with a much simplified agenda of meeting people and
sharing stories at the Doucet family reunion. Doucet shares in
this book the personal quest of coming to grips with his own identity as
a member of the Acadian diaspora.
He tells of some at that first Congrès who engaged in debates over who really is Acadian -- can one
be Acadian if one lives outside of New Brunswick?
They questioned how there could be a culture without language, custom, and common society.
From the title of his book, it is clear Doucet doesn't share that view.
I don't either. One of the things I got from the Congrès was a real sense of connection -- of family -- of Acadian identity. I'm still trying to process it -- and share it with my kids. My wife and children weren't able to go with me to the LeBlanc reunion, but at Christmas we're going over to Louisiana for a couple of days so I can introduce them to some of the family and to some of the sights, like the Acadian Memorial.
And five years from now, we hope to attend together the 2004
Congrès Mondial Acadien, in l'Acadie.
2003: My First Visit to Acadie
In July 2003 I was able to visit Nova Scotia and southeastern New
Brunswick for the first time. Here
are some pictures and reflections.