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|By Michael McAteer
Congress invites descendants of French settlers who left Canadian Maritimes
HOUMA, La. - Next summer's second Acadian World Congress promises to be a family reunion of massive proportions.
The first congress, held in New Brunswick in 1994, was a runaway success, attracting some 300,000 people. Organizers say more than that number could take in events scheduled for the part of southern Louisiana known as Acadiana. It's expected to be the largest national gathering of Acadians since the Acadian diaspora of 1755.
``The theme, as always, is reunion; to regather the spirit that makes us a people,'' says Brian Comeaux, the congress's president and executive director.
The Acadians are descendants of French settlers in Canada's eastern maritime provinces whose mass expulsion from their land and homes by the British in 1755 is remembered as le Grand Derangement (the Great Upheaval). It is an event that resonates in Acadian history.
Scattered to the four winds, some Acadians were deported back to France. Some found uneasy refuge in the American colonies, while others ended up in French-controlled colonies such as Haiti, Martinique, and French Guiana. Up to 3,000 of the exiles eventually made it to today's Acadiana where they put down roots and put their unique stamp on landscape and society.
Here the French language and culture are still a significant presence, administrative areas are called parishes, names on many of the mailboxes are in French, and Acadian or ``cajun'' music, food and customs have a certain joie de vivre.
The world congress kicks off Aug. 1 with an outdoor concert in Houma, an hour's drive southwest of New Orleans. It ends Aug. 15, the Acadian ``national'' day, with a huge concert at the Cajundome in Lafayette, a two-hour drive northwest of New Orleans.
Besides scores of Acadian family reunions and community celebrations, the congress will host a genealogical symposium, an academic conference, theatre and music festivals. Visitors are expected from all over the world with the largest contingent from eastern Canada.
Encompassing 22 of the Louisiana's 61 parishes, Acadiana roughly forms a triangle, its base stretching from the Mississippi delta to the Texas border with its apex north of Lafayette, Acadiana's ``capital.' '
The city was first established by Acadians who originally settled on a bayou near New Orleans but later moved west after conflicts with the local Creole community. The geographic heart of Acadiana, it's an ideal point from which to explore the three different Acadian regions: coastal, prairie and bayou.
The Acadian Village - ``the Cajun Capital of the world'' - is just south of Lafayette. A replica of a village store and chapel and restored period homes of Acadian architecture give an idea of 19th century Acadian society in south Louisiana.
If Lafayette is Acadiana's heart then St. Martinville, southeast of the city, is its soul. Once populated by many aristocrats fleeing the French Revolution, it was later settled by Acadians who finally found a home after the great diaspora. St. Martinville has become a pilgrimage spot for Acadians who come to visit the resting place of Emmeline Labiche. Buried in the churchyard of St. Martin de Tours, Louisiana's oldest Catholic church, Labiche's poignant story of displacement, wandering and lost love is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow' s poem, ``Evangeline.''
St. Martinville also houses the Acadian Memorial-Acadian House Museum inside of which is a large mural depicting the arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana. On five plaques are inscribed the names of about 3,000 Acadian refugees. Above the plaques is an inscription in French and English: ``Pause friends, read my name and remember.''
Here in Houma, the county seat of Terrebonne Parish, the local tourist office and Acadian groups are gearing up for the congress. The Association has a network of B&Bs, which is already at work trying to ensure accommodation for the expected influx of visitors.
Now surrounded by suburbia resulting from the oil boom in the Gulf of Mexico, Houma owes much of its earlier existence to sugar. Southdown Plantation House, a 19th century manor in the English style, is open to the public and provides information on Cajun history.
Further information: Brian Comeaux, Acadian World Congress, PO Box 3804, Lafayette, La. 70502-3804, U.S.A.; toll-free 1-888-526-1999 or (318) 234-6166; Website: www.cma-la99.com.
Louisiana visitor information: Louisiana Office of Tourism, PO Box 94291, Baton Rouge, La. 70804-9291; phone 1-800 334-8626.
Copyright (c) 1998 Toronto Star