2018-02-15 / Front Page

French Mass important to not only natives

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer


Rita Simba and her daughter Chelsea Nsengiyumva, 8, attend the weekly French Mass at St. Joseph Church in Biddeford held Sundays at 8 a.m. Simba, who grew up in Rwanda, said she had to force herself to learn new languages as she travelled, but that it was an important step toward fostering a sense of community. Nsengiyumva studies French at St. James School. (Grant McPherson photo) Rita Simba and her daughter Chelsea Nsengiyumva, 8, attend the weekly French Mass at St. Joseph Church in Biddeford held Sundays at 8 a.m. Simba, who grew up in Rwanda, said she had to force herself to learn new languages as she travelled, but that it was an important step toward fostering a sense of community. Nsengiyumva studies French at St. James School. (Grant McPherson photo) BIDDEFORD – St. Joseph’s Church continues a long-standing Franco- American tradition that could be bolstered by some immigrant populations as the number of French speakers in the community declines.

The church still holds a weekly French Mass on Sundays at 8 a.m. that is well attended, according to Elizabeth Williams, pastoral life coordinator for Good Shepherd Parish. The church was completed in 1883 and was the tallest building in Maine for more than 100 years, according to the Good Shepherd Parish website. Prior to the 1960s, Mass was still recited in Latin.

“The homily, the message to the people, is always in English regardless of which priest speaks French,” she said. “We don’t want to take away French. We keep as much as we possibly can for the people that go there. It’s been pretty steady, depends on the weather but it is an older crowd. As time goes on it’s going to be less and less people but we do have people that come from different countries who speak French.”

Father Renald Labarre spends his winters in Florida but will return this summer to give the weekly mass in French at St. Joseph. Labarre grew up in Biddeford and graduated from the now closed St. Andre’s Parish School that joined St. Joseph and St. Mary in 1993 to become St. James School. Labarre grew up speaking French at home with his father before going to school in Montreal. He said giving the Mass in French helps him keep parts of his past alive today.

“You speak not only a language but the culture attached to it,” he said. “Tradition comes with language, it’s not just words we speak. Language expresses itself in the life we live. I think that’s important, to keep the legacy of their heritage and culture by doing the mass in French. It maintains that status.”

Labarre said he remembers learning French in school and wishes students today were exposed to the same multicultural experience.

“It’s sad to say we’re losing out now,” he said. “Most young kids don’t speak French anymore. In the old days we spoke French in the parochial schools in Biddeford and Saco. We had a half day in English and a half day in French. In the morning we spoke English in science, history and math and when it came to the afternoon we learned culture, religion and language all in French. It was interesting. That’s gone and it’s sad to say we lost something in the process. The more we’re exposed to cultural expression, the richer we are. We are a melting pot. That’s what makes us so unique, our cultures coming together as one.”

Rita Simba of Saco plans to keep French alive in her own family. She attends the weekly Mass to remind herself of the songs she used to sing when she grew up in Rwanda. She moved to the U.S. in 1999 after fleeing the civil war and genocide that escalated in 1994, resulting in the deaths of about 800,000 people in just over three months. She also spent nine years living in Luxembourg and speaks five languages including, French, English, German, Luxembourgish and her native Kinyarwanda. She said it’s easier to speak with people from her own country when she’s in a new place, but she forced herself to learn new languages in order to adapt.

“You have to have an open mind and go for it,” she said.

Her children attend St. James School in Biddeford and take French classes there. She said joining the church and learning new languages has allowed her to become more involved in the community.

“I don’t want to lose that part of me,” she said.

Simba and her family will be listening to Labarre once he returns this summer to continue an evolving tradition. Labarre said he looks forward to returning to Biddeford every year.

“It’s the community, the people, it really is, that I’ve grown to love,” he said. “There’s a whole history that binds us together as one. I was the pastor in Biddeford from 1993 and I retired 2007. That’s a long time. In the years I was pastor I had a chance to know a lot of people and I still know them. They call on me to do services. I like the relationship that exists. It provides a link to the past that was rich and helps us understand and cope with the present and future.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

FMI

Good Shepherd Parish holds a French Mass at 8 a.m. Sundays, at St. Joseph Church on Elm Street in Biddeford.

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