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Patrick Lacroix is the director of Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
On July 3, 1922, Bishop Louis S. Walsh of Portland stood before hundreds of devoted Catholics in St. David, in present-day Madawaska, and consecrated a large cross overlooking the St. John River. The landmark honored the Acadians who, after decades of tragedy and uncertainty, began building new communities in the region in 1785.
The ceremony deserves to be remembered for the events it commemorated but also for the context in which it happened — context that still resonates a century later.
This religious celebration offered overdue recognition of Acadians’ history and culture. Walsh, an Irish American, may have had his own agenda. In 1913, he had traveled to Bar Harbor to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first Catholic mission in what would become Maine. At a time when anti-Catholic bigotry was rampant, recognition of this multicentennial history could confer legitimacy. French Jesuits had preceded the Pilgrims in the northeastern colonies.
Catholics were part of the fabric of the nation from the very beginning — so ran the argument.
The same idea inspired the ceremony in St. David in 1922. By planting a cross, Catholics were claiming the region and the state as their own, just as early modern explorers had done. Walsh and his episcopal entourage extended a gracious hand specifically to Acadians and recognized them as a pillar of the Catholic Church in Maine. There was, in fact, something poetic about holding the ceremony on the eve of Independence Day.
As often happens, this lofty vision concealed a complicated story. Acadians had settled on the ancestral lands of the Wəlastəkwewiyik, and they were not alone in the colonization efforts of the 1780s. In the Kamouraska region of Quebec, displaced Acadians had met and married French Canadians. More people from the St. Lawrence region would settle in the St. John Valley after 1820. Different French-heritage peoples came together and, through kinship ties, different regions became entwined.
Valley residents continued to move across the river — and across the border — unchecked for generations. Francophone orators from New Brunswick who attended the 1922 ceremony embodied a story that defied the boundaries of the state. Considering these wide ranging connections, a better symbol of life in the region may be an event reported in the pages of this very newspaper two months later: the inauguration of Madawaska’s first international bridge.
These nuances do not diminish the significance of the 1922 ceremony, which marked an important turning point in the region’s history. It looked back to the sacrifices of francophone pioneers while responding to new cultural challenges. The governor had signed into law a bill mandating English-only instruction in public schools three years earlier, and the Ku Klux Klan was now reaching the peak of its influence in Maine. No less, on a warm July afternoon, an embattled minority group dared to speak French, assert its heritage, and claim this country as its own.
Countless events have since tested the resolve of the region’s French-heritage people. The prohibition on French education (except as a language) was on the books until 1969. Under the weight of mainstream U.S. culture and negative perceptions of Valley French, cultural and linguistic losses have continued.
The latest challenge came with COVID-related travel restrictions, which imposed hardships that were not experienced elsewhere in the state. Isolation from New Brunswick and Quebec raised questions about the fate of French heritage in Maine, the very issue raised a century ago. Supported by the Maine Humanities Council, the Acadian Archives in Fort Kent have responded by conducting oral interviews that assess the gradual erasure of the borderland and explore what lies ahead. Meanwhile, countless artists, cultural groups, heritage sites, and festivals attest to a desire to persist.
French-heritage communities in northern Maine are now, as in 1922, at a crossroads. Fortunately, the Valley inherits a history not merely of struggle, but of resilience, renewal, and adaptability — and that is a legacy worth discovering and nourishing.