August 15th, Sacred Feast or Heck of a Party?
lucius a. fontenot photograph
Since its adoption as the Acadians’ national holiday in July 1881 during the first Acadian convention in Memramcook, New Brunswick, Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, holds a choice place on both secular and liturgical calendars in Acadia. Three years later, during the second convention in Miscouche, Prince Edward Island, Father François-Marcel Richard, who had pushed for the selection of Aug. 15, also called for the choosing of an national anthem, “Ave Maris Stella,” and a flag, the French tricolor struck by a yellow star in the blue field. The Acadians’ holy patronage was confided to the Holy Virgin Mary. If that celebration has today become in the Maritime Provinces of Canada an enormous summer festival where one shows one’s pride in being Acadian by participating in a Tintamarre, a noisy parade where one beats on casseroles and other metallic objects, here in Louisiana, this day has mostly kept its religious aspect. This in not to say that certain organizations, notably the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville, have not made an effort to make that day an occasion to display one’s Acadian pride. It is interesting to note that St. Martinville does its tourism promotion around another woman known for her courage and devotion, Evangeline. Nonetheless, the special relationship between Mary and Acadians everywhere is undeniable.
In Acadia, the summer season is an opportunity to go outdoors, unburdened by the thick layers of clothing needed to live through the Canadian winter. One can understand their desire to let off a little steam. In Louisiana, in the middle of the redoubtable month of August, people prefer staying in their air-conditioned interiors rather than traipsing around under the pitiless sun. Yet the Louisiana Cajuns are no less devoted to the Holy Virgin and the Feast of the Assumption. To the contrary, Louisiana Catholics seem to have an unparalleled devotion to them. During my peregrinations around Acadiana, I know that I can always immediately identify neighborhoods that have a high concentration of Cajuns: All I have to do is count the Virgin Mary statues. Just like the star on the Acadian flag, the one we find on the Acadiana flag – which also symbolizes our French origins through the three fleurs-de-lis and our ties to Spain by castle of Castile – marks not only our attachment to the American Republic thanks to the first Acadians in Louisiana’s participation in the American Revolution under Galvez but also and especially our devotedness to the patron saint of the Acadians.
While the first Acadian convention took place 130 years ago, it is only since 1994 with the first World Acadian Congress that Louisiana Cajuns are getting used to the idea of assembling all members of the Acadian Diaspora. Of course, certain exchanges between the two peoples were already longstanding and even famous, such as the visit by Dudley LeBlanc and his “Evangelines” in the early 1930s, which took on an air of pilgrimage with the crowning moment being a stop at Herbert Hoover’s White House. Since that time, and especially since the Congrès Mondial Acadien-Louisiane 1999, the northern Acadians and the Louisiana Cajuns have had increasing contact, up to the point where many Louisiana residents go north for the summer around Aug. 15. It is sure that the Feast of the Assumption places Acadian identity squarely under the sign of Mary in order to assembly all Acadians wherever they may be. All we need to figure out is whether it is a sacred feast or a heck of a party!