Yesterday morning I attended two events of the Franco-American Week Festival: the annual memorial ceremony at the Little Canada Monument near the corner of Aiken and Hall streets and the traditional flag-raising ceremony at City Hall. The Little Canada Monument has been re-landscaped so that the granite stone with bronze plaque is more visible. Evergreen shrubs had grown to surround and almost obscure the marker over the years. At the ceremony, businessman Al Daigle was credited with leading the effort to improve the monument site. About 35 people attended the memorial ceremony and wreath-laying, including a man from Montreal who was in the city for the Franco-American events and a professor of French from Smith College who has been to Lowell before to take part in and document the French Canadian-American cultural conservation activities. Many of the stalwart Franco-American Week Committee members were on hand, along with other long-time French culture activists in the city. Committee chair Ruby Duhamel Cook led the ceremony.
The crowd doubled in size for the flag-raising in front of City Hall. If I heard correctly, City Councilor Rita Mercier, who represented Mayor Milinazzo at the ceremony, said there are 27 flag-raising events each year, recognizing the roots of people from various nations living in Lowell. Former City Councilor and Committee veteran Curtis LeMay was the master of ceremonies and led the singing of the U.S. national anthem; his father, Armand W. LeMay, sang “O Canada” as the Quebec fleur-de-lis flag rose to the top of the pole. (The Canadian national anthem was written by one-time Lowell resident Calixa Lavalee; a plaque in Pollard Memorial Library recognizes Lavalee’s creative work.) Armand is one of the founders, if not THE founder of Franco-American Week. He’s also primarily responsible for the prominent monument to the Franco-American community in front of City Hall, which was installed in 1974. Armand told me that he found the 1872 school bell that is the centerpiece of the monument in deep storage (to put it kindly) in the Department of Public Works warehouse on Broadway (the City barns). He paid the City Manager $1 to make it legal, and then created the monument by mounting the bell on a granite base. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a flurry of ethnic monument-building in and around City Hall (French, Irish, Greek, Polish, Italian). Also participating in the flag-raising ceremony were the Franco-American War Veterans with an impressive array of flags representing aspects of U.S., Quebec, Franco-American, and Canadian culture. Everyone at the ceremony received a big red carnation to hold or wear with a pin.
This being the 40th anniversary of Franco-American Week, there was a special feeling of accomplishment in the air, but also a concern about how the tradition would go forward. Curtis and I, both in our mid-50s, joked that we were among the youngest participants other than about a dozen kids who were brought by their parents or grandparents. Like the other so-called “long-settled” ethnic groups as folklorists call them, the French Canadians don’t have a corps of activists one or two generations younger than the current cultural leaders in the respective groups. Armand and others were doing this when they were in their ’30s and ’40s, but when they look into the modest-sized crowds at their events they don’t see their replacements.