Richelieu Club keeps the French traditions alive

Richelieu Club keeps the French traditions alive

Members of the Woonsocket Richelieu Club during their regular meeting at Uncle Ronnie’s Red Tavern in Burrillville including, top row from left, Ronald Heroux of Middletown, Theresa Dudley of North Smithfield, Norman Desmarais of Lincoln, Denise Gagnon of North Smithfield, Pierre Rondeau of Burrillville, Louise Tetreault of Danielson, Conn.; bottom row, Therese Perron of Franklin, Mass., George Perron of Franklin, Mass., Lenore Rheaume of Woonsocket, Bernadette Roux of Mapleville and Trudy Lamoureux of Woonsocket. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

BURRILLVILLE – It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, and members of the Blackstone Valley’s last remaining French-language social club are holding their monthly meeting in the basement of Uncle Ronnie’s Red Tavern in Burrillville.

Club members greet each other with cries of “bonjour!” as waitstaff bustles around taking drink orders. French chatter flows through the room, and members switch to English just long enough to place their dinner orders before getting down to the business of the meeting.

“It’s a social club, but it’s the only one that’s French,” Trudy Lamoureux, club secretary, explains in English as everyone takes their seats.

The Woonsocket Richelieu Club was founded in 1961 as part of Richelieu International, a network of service clubs that originated in Ottawa. At the time, membership was entirely French-speaking men from the Woonsocket area, with a separate women’s club founded in 1986. According to Lamoureux, Richelieu was one of several French-language social clubs in the area at the time, totaling more than 80 members in both clubs at its height.

The men’s and women’s clubs merged in 2011. A short time later, a group of United States-based clubs split off from the international organization to form their own federation, including about 15 in New England. Today, the New England clubs still meet semi-annually, gathering to swap stories in the French-English mix that’s become a trademark of Quebec immigrants to New England.

“Over here, the French is slang,” Lamoureux said. “A patois. It’s broken down.”

Like many of the club’s members, Lamoureux learned French from her parents, who met in Woonsocket after emigrating from Canada. She spoke both languages as a student at St. Clare High School and returned to school after graduation, trading in her patois for formal French.

“It was easier to find jobs in those days if you spoke French. I’m talking 1953,” she said.

She got a job with L’Union Saint Jean Baptiste sending out notices to French-language newspapers. Later, she taught the language to her children, carrying on the tradition for a new generation of bilingual speakers.

Though the club no longer meets in Woonsocket, other members also have ties to the French immigration around the Blackstone Valley. At the June 9 meeting, about 12 members kick off the evening by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag in French. They sing the club’s song, the Chant Richelieu, and review the club’s finances. Later, they read from a French joke book and hear from a member who recently published a book while they wait for dinner to arrive.

The meeting also includes the formal installation of officers for the upcoming year. Denise Gagnon of North Smithfield is president, Norman Desmarais of Lincoln is vice president, Pierre Rondeau of Burrillville is treasurer, and Lamoureux is reinstalled as secretary.

“It’s quite different from what it was in the old days there. It was mostly doctors, lawyers then,” Lamoureux explained. “There were so many French, the club was more selective in who they let in.”

Nowadays, most members are retirees who want to keep up their French. At 62, Lamoureux’s daughter, Lenore Rheaume, is one of the youngest members. Rheaume joined nearly 30 years ago when the club was better known in Woonsocket, she said.

“The club had a real social standing in town. They did fundraisers, they had a float every year in the Autumnfest parade. They were prominent. They gave to charity for many years, thousands of dollars,” she said.

Today, she said, most clubs around New England face the challenge of declining membership as they struggle to keep the French traditions alive. Rheaume used to live in Lewiston, Maine, where a club that once had 125 members is now down to three, she said. Young people, she said, don’t grow up speaking the French language or else have online groups to connect them with a social community. For older generations, health and old age make it difficult to continue meeting.

“It’s kind of a sad thing to see it go, but that’s where it’s heading. We’ve lost at least 10 or so in the past couple years, they’re no longer with us. We’ve tried to recruit,” she said.

One method she and her mother have used to try to keep the history fresh for new generations is recording videos about the French culture. A former television coordinator for the University of Maine, Rheaume shows the educational videos at meetings and discusses them with other members. She said the club still manages to engage the community, but without newer members, she fears its days are numbered.

Desmarais, a retired Providence College professor, agreed. Clubs in Fall River and New Bedford, he said, have already become mostly dormant, and he sees the same future in Rhode Island.

“The same thing’s going to happen to this club. I think this generation’s going to be the last one,” he said.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Rheaume said she thinks the club still has something to offer to young people. More than a million French-Canadian immigrants are thought to have settled in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in more than 10 million French descendants in New England today.

“There are still people, young people, I think they would benefit from it because they would come in and be able to hear the oral stories,” she said.

“I hope it continues as long as possible,” she added. “I’ll be supporting it, and we’d love to have extra people out there who maybe don’t know that these resources are there.”