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|St. Martinville, La. --The statue of Evangeline over
the grave in a courtyard behind St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church looks
a lot like the late Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio. There's a reason.
After playing Evangeline in a 1929 movie, the actress gave the money for the statue, so they cast it in her image.
What's a romantic legend without a few inconsistencies? The woman buried under the statue, Emmeline Labiche, probably wasn't the real- life Evangline, anyhow. How do I know? Because evidently there wasn' t a real-life Evangeline.
It's a long story --even longer than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow' s poem --but serious Acadian scholars like Carl Brasseaux have debunked the myth of Evangeline. He calls it "fakelore." The legend wasn't made famous by Longfellow; it was made up by Longfellow. And over the years it evolved to bayou country. . . .Saying so, of course, upsets a lot of people in this passionate, moss-draped land. They not only depend on the legend to draw tourists; many believe it heart and soul.
Well, it could have happened. It probably did happen to somebody. When the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755 there might well have been a betrothed couple separated on their wedding day. And when they finally were reunited three years later (Why not at an oak tree in St. Martinville?), the man, a Gabriel, probably told his patient love, an Evangeline, that he had married someone else. She probably went nuts and died.
I love the story and this town. There's the grave site with Dolores behind one of the prettiest churches you ever saw. And there's an Evangeline Oak and a Gabriel's Oak --a virtual literary forest.
Boasting a romantic legend like this one, it's no wonder Louisiana thinks it needs two kinds of marriages: standard and industrial strength. If you have to wander a continent looking for your groom, you want the marriage to last.
Under Louisiana state law, couples can apply for something called a "covenant license," a marriage contract that requires premarital counseling and makes divorce more difficult.
The law is brand new and it's not clear yet what effect, if any, it will have on happily-forever-afters in the Land of Evangeline. Critics say it's just a Catholic ploy in a Catholic state to thwart divorce.
I don't know. If someone wanted to marry me in Louisiana using the looser version of vows, I'd be skeptical. I bet the choice is making for a lot of fights between young couples of varying enthusiasm about upcoming nuptials.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving in a famous Cajun dance hall called Mulate's, an attractive, retirement-age couple took to the dance floor before the band cranked up fiddle and accordion. The bridegroom, whom I'd call Gabriel, wore a Sunday suit and a cowboy hat. His Evangeline wore white.
You couldn't hear what kind of vows they took because of the normal chatter and clatter of a beer hall. But when the short ceremony was over, the groom took off his hat, waved it high and the whole place broke into applause. Then the band played a special Cajun waltz, and the newlyweds danced.
I suspect theirs was a standard contract. Past a certain age, forever isn't that long.
The Evangeline myth is accepted with varying degrees of reverence. According to Brasseaux, Evangeline means a lot more to white-collar Cajuns than blue-collar ones.
"An egalitarian people, blue-collar Cajuns have traditionally tried to topple anyone and anything placed on a pedestal . . .," he writes.
To support that thesis, Brasseaux quotes a popular ditty by local musician Alex Broussard:
Gabriel was my godfather
A bit of nonsense, of course, since Evangeline is a dead ringer for Dolores Del Rio
Copyright 1997, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution