THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT #19: COMMUNITY LEADERS

The following has been collected and collated by Marie-Reine Mikesell with contributions from Virgil Benoit and Ralph Naveaux. Marie-Reine Mikesell is a longtime promoter and activist for French Canadian culture. She has kindly agreed to prepare a ‘brief history’ of the activities with which she and her colleagues have engaged over the past many decades. This special edition of The Storykeepers Project reflects well on the diversity of our heritage and the collaborative spirit that has animated it through the late 20th and into the 21st centuries. —ed

MARIE-REINE MIKESELL

April 1985 from the 'French in America' calendar

April 1985 from the French in America calendar

There has been in the second half of the 20th century a successful effort to wake up the sleeping Canadiens in the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi. Such an endeavor always needs leaders. This is a brief recollection of three of them who surfaced during this time period in three different strategic locations.

It was the year 1958. We, the Mikesells, were brand new citizens of the State of Illinois. I knew that I was in a former territory of New France but, I asked, “where are les habitants?” The answer: they were invisible or mute. From that place and time I started a long voyage of discovery that would take me a quarter of a century later, in 1983, to Mackinac Island in the State of Michigan.

I began by reading newspapers, many newspapers, old ones (in libraries) and new ones from around the Midwest. After some years I had a “eureka” moment. I discovered two activists, each one in his own state: Ralph Naveaux of Monroe, Michigan, whose name I found in 1974 in a French language newspaper published in Massachusetts and, soon afterwards, Virgil Benoit, from Red Lake Falls, Minnesota through a feature article on his work in the Chicago Tribune.

Around the same time, also in Minnesota, Dr. William C. Rogers, director of the World Affairs Center of the University of Minnesota, realized there were no French organizations in his state. Minnesota is a state where the official motto is written in French “L’Etoile du Nord” (The Northern Star) and the main streets of its biggest city are named for the explorers Hennepin and Nicolet. Through his investigations he found “a group of people little known and may be submerged: The French in Minnesota.”

Yet when people with French surnames were asked where their ancestors came from, they always gave him vague answers. He decided to do what he could to illuminate the mystery and eventually saw the renouveau des Canadiens Francais of Minnesota, just as another regrouping of Minnesota French Canadians was taking place on the Red River and the Prairies, under the guidance of Virgil Benoit (see below.)

Franco-American Conference, 1983, at Fort Michillimakinac

Franco-American Conference, 1983, at Fort Michillimackinac

We all made each other’s acquaintance and began to correspond. Then, in the late 70’s, it was decided that we in the Midwest would sponsor a gathering of French Canadians. This meeting came to pass in August 1983 on the historic island of Mackinac and at Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland at the Straits of Mackinac, Michigan.

A main outcome of this historic meeting was to connect for the first time in the late 20th century Canadians, Acadians and Franco-Americans from across the North American continent. A second important outcome of this gathering was the creation of an annual historical calendar. Our ‘French in America’ calendar was produced for nearly 20 years (1985-2002). As an archive, it remains a valuable repository of images of French North American history and culture. —MRM

Marie-Reine Mikesell and her husband are the benefactors of La Maternelle, a French pre-school in Frenchville, Maine, in the St. John Valley. Her publications include a contribution to ‘A Franco-American Overview’ with an essay on the Huguenots (1979.) She has been honored with decorations from Québec: L’ordre de la Fidélité Française (in 1981), L’Ordre des francophones d’Amérique (in 1983) and from France: Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques (in 1992). —ed

see: ‘French in America’ calendar for more information on this multi-year project.

RALPH NAVEAUX

Ralph Naveaux of Monroe, Michigan has long been involved with educating the public on French Canadian culture in the region. His first New World ancestor, Michel Jacques Neveu, dit Francoeur, born in Saint-Gervais Parish in Paris, France in 1718, was a soldier of the Compagnie Hertel de LaFresnière in New France/Canada. One of his grandsons Joseph Neveu, dit Francoeur, born in Montréal, was in the milice of the Michigan Territory at the start of the War of 1812. He settled in Rivière-au-raisin (today Monroe) where he married Marie-Louise Wauwauga Boismier in 1810.

First as a French teacher and later as Director of the Monroe County Historical Museum, Ralph Naveaux has long been engaged in affirming the French Canadian history of his town, his state, and beyond. He is well-known for his role in living history and his leadership of reenactments of Francophone militia units from the time of New France and later. His deep knowledge of the history of the region is a valuable resource for the entire state.

Ralph Naveaux is a member of the Commission of the Bicentennial of the 1812 War and a member of the Comité des Amis du champ de bataille de Rivière-aux-Raisins (River Raisin Battlefield). He is the author of Invaded on All Sides, Escape to Frenchtown co-authored with Rachel Wilke, Women of the Raisin co-authored with Mary Ellen Van Wassenova, The Floral City co-authored with Shana Gruber, and The River Raisin Battlefield Driving Tour. —MRM

VIRGIL BENOIT

The Red River and the Prairies, territory that includes Indian reservations and a métis population, is where my ancestors from my father’s side settled around the mid 1880s — it was the end of a second long journey in America for them. During the Acadian forced exodus of 1755, they first escaped from Boston where they had been placed under custody of a local family, after being separated from their children, and the family relocated at Saint-Ours, Quebec in the early 1760s.

Three generations later, grandpa Aimé Benoit left Quebec for New England where he spent a few years before coming to Minnesota with his parents where they settled in Louisville Township, in Polk County. Grandpa married Elizabeth Dandeneau, a union from which my father Maurice was born. My father in turn married Georgianne Lefaivre whose parents left the Montreal area for New England, later coming to Minnesota.

The community where my grandparents settled, in northwestern Minnesota was, to a certain degree, made up of old French-Canadian stock originally from Red River (current Winnipeg). Many of the families were Metis who were guided to the new community of Red Lake Falls, Minnesota in 1876 by the metis expedition guide Pierre Bottineau who had earlier guided many of them from Red River to the Saint Paul area in the 1830s.

These families founded, along with others who came later, Red Lake Falls, Terrebonne, Gentilly, Huot and contributed in large numbers to neighboring communities. They were farmers and merchants who were joined by clergy and medical doctors. Other communities were founded by French Canadians in North Dakota such as Wild Rice near Fargo, Oakwood, Olga and Rolette.

The French Canadians were not lonely here. They visited their relatives in the various communities. They intermarried and socialized through many organizations. It was from these rural French Canadians that I learned my first French language and from the religious nuns I learned to jig. Later, I learned a ‘second’ French language as I prepared to teach. I continuously study the French language through the texts I read, but I have never forgotten the personal meanings of the words and expressions of my ‘home’ French.

I have always been engaged in knowing and living the history of my ancestors. As a teacher of the French language I have highlighted our French Canadian history and culture. I have written short stories based on being French Canadian in the Middle West. I have also written chapters for books published in Quebec.

Most of my time has gone into teaching and service to French-Canadian heritage in the community where I grew up. I formed a local group to study French-Canadian history, which has now been in existence for thirty-two years. We continue to be innovative with our history, to create from it, and have been recognized for our creative programming. Virgil Benoit, Red Lake Falls, Minnesota

Virgil Benoit is the driving force behind Initiatives in French Midwest and founder of Franco-Fête. He has been recognized by France, with les Palmes académiques, and by Québec with the Order of Francophones of America. This distinction recognizes the merits of those who give their support to the development of French life in the Americas. * Le travail de Virgil Benoit a été reconnu par la France qui lui a décerné Les Palmes Académiques et par le Québec où il a été décoré de L’Ordre des Francophones d’Amérique. Cette distinction reconnaît les mérites de personnes qui ont accordé leur soutien à l’essor de la vie française sur le continent américain.—MRM

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