For 35th year, festival, soirée celebrate city’s French Heritage

For 35th year, festival, soirée celebrate city’s French Heritage

Le Vent des Cantons of Canada will perform at the French Heritage Festival at 1 p.m. at River Island Park. The group consists of Claire Ouellet on piano and vocals, Laurencio Beaudin playing diatonic accordions and foot percussion, and Robert Goulet on the rhythm bones and other traditional percussions.

WOONSOCKET – From meat pie and dynamites, to French music, dancing and city-focused trivia, the French Heritage Festival and Soirée has become a celebration of the many things that make Woonsocket unique, a yearly nod to the cultural influence of the area’s many Canadian ancestors.

The dual event, held the Saturday following Labor Day weekend, is now in its 35th year, and will take place beginning at 9 a.m. at River Island Park on Bernon Street, eventually drawing to a close at 8:30 p.m. inside Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Hall on Park Avenue.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 9, visitors to the park can peruse what localized French culture has to offer, including food, entertainment, arts and crafts, and local farmers selling fresh produce. The festival is family-friendly and free to attend, and also features attractions for children such as face painting and visits from Pawtucket Red Sox mascot Paws and Bobo the Clown.

The event, hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts, originally began as the French Farmers Market under the guidance of well known community activists such as the late Jack Lawhead and Phyllis Thomas.

“The mission of the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts is to promote the arts and culture, and I think the organizers felt that it would be appropriate to start an event highlighting French culture,” said Romeo Berthiaume, one of the chairmen of this year’s celebration.

The name was changed to the French Heritage Festival to distinguish it from other local farmers markets about 10 years ago, but the traditions stayed the same. Guests enjoy live music, dancing and can choose from a variety of food vendors serving traditional French Canadian dishes, as well as at least one menu item found almost exclusively in northern Rhode Island: dynamites. The dish is believed to have originated in the city, and has remained popular with generations of local families.

Festival founder Lawhead is also known locally for his efforts in launching Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, and the school’s culinary students will be on hand serving crepes.

A Woonsocket trivia contest will be held at the park gazebo, with prizes and raffles starting at noon.

One band from Canada always headlines the festival, complementing a local act. This year, Lincoln-based Les Joyeux Copains, loosely translated as “The Merry Comrades,” will play from 10 a.m. to noon.

Making their fourth appearance at the festival and back by popular demand, headline band Le Vent des Cantons of Canada will start at 1 p.m. and play until 3 p.m.

The trio performs traditional and folk music, reels, gigue and more, and consists of Claire Ouellet on piano and vocals, Laurencio Beaudin playing diatonic accordions and foot percussion, and Robert Goulet on the rhythm bones and other traditional percussions. Guests will enjoy quadrille – a French version of square dancing – with a professional caller, while the band plays.

The festival will be held outdoors, rain or shine, and Berthiaume noted that it has never been canceled.

Le Vent des Cantons will also play at a second Saturday event dedicated to the city’s French roots: the soirée. That event begins at 5 p.m. and continues until 8:30 p.m. in the Our Lady Queen of Martyrs hall.

With Roger Laliberte as emcee, the soirée will include a meal of dynamites, tickets for beer, wine or soft drinks, and entertainment for a donation of $10. Narragansett Beer will sponsor the bar this year.

The soirée has grown in popularity over the years while catering to a somewhat older crowd. Berthiaume said that the first time the soiree was held, organizers were hoping for attendance of around 25 people, and they now cater to 100 to 150 guests annually.

“A lot of people in Woonsocket have French Canadian heritage, and it kind of gives them a taste of what their culture was like,” said Berthiaume. “People come primarily for the musical entertainment, I think. It brings back memories from their childhood. There’s also a lot of dancing that goes on.”

“We don’t make any money on it because of our expenses,” Berthiaume noted. “The goal is to present this event to the community every year.

Tickets for the soirée can be purchased at Pepin Lumber, WNRI Radio 1380, WOON Radio 1240, Vose Hardware, Piette Jewelers, Bileau’s Flowers or by calling Berthiaume at 401-651-4739. Limited tickets will be available at the door.

All proceeds will benefit Mardi Gras 2017.