BIDDEFORD – Pork pies gobbled up on holidays, grandparents fondly referred to as “Memere” and “Pepere” and common Franco last names gracing business signs are all elements of French heritage common to Biddeford.

That heritage has been carried through generations since Canadians immigrated to southern Maine in the late 1800s for work in the Biddeford and Saco textile mills. But at the same time, recognition of Franco-American culture has blurred.

“The culture continues to be lost,” Biddeford High School teacher Alan Casavant said. “If I ask my freshmen about their ethnicity, even though they have Franco names, they don’t know it.”

Having grown up in Biddeford himself, Casavant, 58, recognizes the Franco traditions that his students’ families practice, but the students often assume those traditions are commonplace.

“They have little understanding as a whole, but it is striking that they don’t recognize their own culture,” he said.

Reviving interest in the French language and culture is the main goal of La Fete du Printemps, or the Celebration of Spring, taking place Friday through Sunday.

“The fete is a way for people to reconnect with some of the cultural and social conditions,” said John Maxson, 44, an organizer of the event and head of La Societe St. Jean Baptiste de Bienfaisance.

Maxson, a Biddeford native who now lives in Bar Mills, said that while descendants of Canadians are still the majority in Biddeford’s population, there are only 19 members in La Societe St. Jean Baptiste de Bienfaisance, the city’s oldest French association, founded in 1867.

The Rev. Ron Labarre, a retired Catholic priest who is a member of the association and grew up in Biddeford during the 1930s and 1940s, said he has seen French culture go through highs and lows in the community.

“To work in the Biddeford community downtown, you had to speak French to do business. That was thriving until the 1960s,” Labarre said.

Part of that he attributed to the fact that members of his generation spoke French at home and learned English only when they went to school. Today, students are studying French only in the classroom, and English is spoken at home.

Mireille Beaudoin, a Biddeford High School senior, said she started taking the language in sixth grade to better understand her mother and grandfather when they joked in French.

During La Fete du Printemps, Beaudoin will play the role of Assimilee in “Les Trois Anges,” a one-act play about three angels, assigned to watch over Franco-Americans, who are waiting to ask God for an assignment transfer. Beaudoin’s classmates will play the roles of the two other angels.

Focusing on the arts is a great idea for this spring festival, said Beaudoin, having experienced only the La Kermesse Franco-American Festival growing up.

“I think it’s better to experience the art side of the culture, instead of a carnival experience,” she said.

Organizers of La Kermesse, now planning the 29th festival, are trying to revitalize the weekend-long event, which has faced financial and organizational struggles in recent years. The president, Jessica Quattrone, said organizers hope to hold on to the Franco-American roots of the festival and include French bands and performers during this year’s event, scheduled for June 24-25.

For high school French teacher Dean Morin, involving his junior- and senior-level students in La Fete du Printemps through the play is a tool for teaching the language. But it also helps them connect with their identity as Franco-Americans.

“There are so many French-speaking last names, mostly from Quebec,” Morin said. “It needs to be put out there that they should be proud of that.”

It wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that Jane Martin discovered her French Canadian culture. Now 40, the Biddeford native is living in Montreal. She recently spent a year studying French-Canadian heritage in America as a Fulbright scholar at McGill University.

“My parents’ first language is French, my grandmother’s only language was French. It just never occurred to me that I grew up with a particular cultural heritage,” she said.

As she learns more about the Franco-American culture, Martin said she has seen a resurgence of interest among third-generation Franco-Americans in learning more about where their ancestors came from.

“I think people should do whatever they can to learn about who we are. We’re very unique people with a very unique history and culture,” Martin said. “To rediscover it is incredibly powerful.” 

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ebouthillette@pressherald.com