Thursday 22 March 2018

Mom Pays Tribute

One of the things I absolutely loved about our mother was her ability to remember family milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries. She always used to remind my sister Jacquie and I of who in the family had a birthday, and that we should call them (this was decades before Facebook made reminders automatic).

And if we as a family went to someone's birthday or anniversary party, usually on a Friday or Saturday night, Mom always made sure that she put a thoughtful note in the card rather than just signing it, even if it took a few extra minutes. It was a lesson I learned well, as I always do the same thing now when signing a card for someone.

But as far as remembering milestones and paying tribute, Mom really outdid herself on the occasion of her mother and our grandmother Lucille's 90th birthday in 2013. Not having heard or read her speech since that afternoon, I was stunned when Jacquie sent it to me tonight. For although it is a loving tribute to Grandmother (all the more poignant since her passing in January at the age of 94), it also seems refracted by a cosmic or heavenly mirror...right back at Mom.

It's a pretty neat trick.

After consulting with Jacquie, I have decided to share it here, in order to give you a sense of the lineage and the faith that runs through our family. Those of you who knew them will recognize the connections immediately. And if you didn't know them, you will be introduced to two fine, upstanding ladies that you will never forget:

Tribute to Lucille (Pitre) Fagnan

As the eldest child in our family I have the great honour of delivering the tribute to our Maman, at the occasion of her 90th birthday celebration. The most precious, God-given gift on this Earth is our dear Maman, chosen especially for us. That is why we wish to celebrate Maman’s 90 years in a very special way today. We want to honour her tenacity at instilling in us from the start the very values and traditions that past generations and her own family had followed and passed down themselves! These traditions could be summed up in 4 different themes that I will elaborate on: faith, family, friends and fun. I actually thought of a fifth one as I was finishing up the draft of my tribute. Both my grandparents and my parents held dear the promotion of the French language and culture.

The fabric of our Maman’s faith was sewn intricately throughout her young years as her parents, Stanislaus and Ursule (Martin) Pitre left their comfortable home in St. Boniface, Manitoba, where our Maman, Lucille, was born on October 4th in 1923, to open a homestead in the West in LaCorey, Alberta in 1927 just prior to the Depression of 1928. Her father, who had suffered through a bout of tuberculosis, had been advised to go west in order to improve his health. Many had been afflicted with tuberculosis at that time in Prince Edward Island.

The family of 10 children struggled through the depression as their father taught school in the area of LaCorey. Being very musically inclined, the family soon became the entertainment centre of the area. Neighbourhood parties, music and dancing were plentiful. Friends and neighbours were always a great part of their lives sharing food and fun activities on a regular basis.

Grandpa or Pepère Pitre, as we called him, received a new teaching assignment near St. Paul, Alberta teaching at a residential school, 5 miles west of town, necessitating another move. Soon after, Grandma or Memère Ursule became terribly ill and had to be hospitalized. It took 18 months for her to be well enough to leave the hospital. Through their Dad’s incredible faith in God and in the power of the intercessory prayers of the Virgin Mary, the whole family engaged in daily prayers and special Novenas, daily recital of the Rosary and attendance at daily Mass at the Cathedral in St.Paul throughout Memère’s ordeal. This outpouring of faith bore great fruit and remains a wonderful testament for all generations to follow. After Memère came home, the importance of faith, which had always been there prior to her illness, continued to flourish all the more. They would frequently sing hymns together, recite the Rosary as well as other prayers; someone, usually uncle Wilfrid, the oldest boy, would read a passage from the Bible as everyone went about their household chores in the kitchen. This was frequently followed by an evening of fun, stories and music. The fiddle, guitar, mouth organ and banjo came out and there was much singing. Even the 3 youngest girls, Florence, Lucille and Therèse, at the tender ages of 3 to 10 were encouraged to sing for the visitors. As teenagers, Florence and Lucille, along with their eldest sister Rose, came to Edmonton to sing in a singing contest and won the competition out of 75 singing acts. They won an all-expenses paid 3-day visit to Edmonton with a banquet held for them at the MacDonald Hotel.

When Maman finished her schooling, she left home to take a stenographer course at Alberta College in Edmonton and became the fastest stenographer in her class. When this was completed she joined her father, who had just begun a new career as District Judge of the Juvenile Court by then. He was also known as the Police Magistrate. Maman, who became a court stenographer for her father’s court cases, found it very exciting to be travelling to all the little towns in the area where her father had to hold court. During this time Maman had met and married a young man from Vimy, Walter Fagnan, who had come to St. Paul to find work. They were eventually married at the St. Paul Cathedral on November 18th, 1946 along with her sister Thérèse and her fiancé, Lucien Gamache, in a memorable double wedding. When Maman and Papa approached the subject of children, Maman happily announced that she wanted 12. He grinned, according to her, looking at Maman’s very petite frame, which you will notice yourself in the photos of the video we will present and probably agree.

Maman continued to work for her father until his untimely accidental death crossing the main street in St. Paul on a late December day of 1948. A while later, she accepted a position as a telephone operator for AGT in St. Paul which she continued only for a short while, as it became more important to her to concentrate on raising a family.

Maman’s early years as a parent were not without great difficulties. With rock-solid faith, Maman, you struggled through 9 pregnancies, the first one hospitalizing you for 1 and1/2 months until I was safely born. I remember hearing how Pepère and Memère Pitre made a special trip to Quebec to the Oratoire St. Joseph and prayed the Rosary, amongst other prayers while climbing at least one hundred steps on their knees petitioning to Jesus, St. Joseph and Mary for your health and my safe birth. A saintly priest, Father Leclainche, who was chaplain at St. Teresa Hospital in St. Paul prayed on Maman for 10 days straight after which he announced to her that her and her baby would be fine.

The other pregnancies were not without their difficulties, but Maman, you continued to want more children to nurture. You began to suffer through a few very chronic and serious debilitating ailments very early on, especially the crippling rheumatoid arthritis you were diagnosed with after receiving a few life-saving blood transfusions and the thyroid imbalances that accompanied that, even as you carried us in your womb; in addition to those, you suffered through 2 infant deaths and 9 different surgeries, but you refused to let these dampen your spirit. You would just offer up your situation to the heavens and move on, smiling at every little accomplishment of ours, encouraging us in our schoolwork and in our own struggles, singing with us whenever we felt like bursting into song, confident in the fact that your own struggles were already in God’s hands.

In our early years, after the supper dishes were done, it was customary for us to assemble in the living room and say the Rosary whenever we could. You would remind us to say our prayers before bedtime and we would go to our rooms to finish our homework. Throughout the months of May and October you would encourage us to go to the daily evening vigils at the nearby catholic cathedral to honour Mary and St. Joseph. As well, the boys were all encouraged to become altar boys, and they all spent some time in that ministry. Faith was definitely the foundation of our family unit and we have our parents to thank for that.

If you think of family experience in terms of a quilt, the faith foundation was the outside border. The other facets of our lives - family, friends and fun- were interwoven on the inside of this quilt. In Maman’s family as in ours, it was impossible to separate these themes one from another.

Devotion to family was Maman’s next greatest priority. As she nurtured us, Maman along with Papa would often sing to us, teaching us countless little songs and ditties, many of which we passed on to our own children later on. Maman could always be heard singing her favourite songs in the kitchen as she baked cakes and cookies, made bread and cooked our meals. We remember her sitting in front of our kitchen window at her Singer sewing machine, pedaling away, singing songs like, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’. Also, she would play some of her vinyl record albums for us and educate us about music greats such as Mario Lanza.

Our parents also encouraged us to play all kinds of family games, especially card games like Barouche, one of Maman’s favourite ones; also Cribbage, Spoons (especially and noisily loved by the boys and their friends and cousins), Crazy Eights and Rummy. We also held games nights during which we played group games like Charades, Pictionary and Super Quiz to name a few. These were unforgettable fun times with our family, relatives and friends.

Not to forget the music part of our lives, Maman, Guy and a very young Laurier all took part in the Musico choir in St. Paul, Réal was in the ‘Les Amis de la Chanson’ choir and in the sixties I was part of the ‘College St-Jean’ choir, as it was called then, after which, newly married, I joined the Bonnyville French choir, then having to move to Falher, Alberta I joined their choir. Our brother Guy, his wife Yvonne and their family in Calgary were all heavily involved in music, all playing the piano, singing in church choirs, getting involved in church music ministry, and Natalie in voice lessons leading to a wonderful opera career. Laurier, who earned a Doctorate in such things as vocal pedagogy, is among other things a voice teacher, an expert in vocal laboratory research for choirs and a choir director at Faculté St. Jean. His brothers, Pierre and Richard have been and are still members of his choir along with some cousins and a myriad of nieces. Rémi and myself, although less involved, enjoy all types of music and heartily support all family musical endeavours as they develop. Réal has had countless and very memorable experiences as a lead guitarist in many parts of the country, over the years as well as on cruise ships and has acquired an amazing reputation as a musician. Many grandchildren have also gone on in the field of music as choir singers, opera singers, composers, cellists, band members, members of music ministries in churches to name a few. It goes without saying that, encouraged throughout our lives by both of our parents, faith and music have been the focal point of our raison d’être as a family.

We also would like to recognize your gifts in the language arts area, dear Maman. Your flair for writing poetry and composing songs has been passed down to some of us as well, and for that we are thankful. One can also not forget your many years of volunteering, especially your willingness to visit the sick in your community, to pray with them and to play music for them. For several years, you also led a prayer group in our home before you left St. Paul to come live in Edmonton. And lastly, Maman, thank you for looking so courageously after our Papa during his lengthy illness, prior to his death in 1983.

I would like to at this time confer a special blessing on our Maman. You may join me if you wish:

Maman, may the Lord bless you and keep you

The Lord make His face shine upon you

And be gracious to you.

The Lord lift His countenance upon you

And give you peace.

Faith/ Family/ Friends/Fun – These are timeless and precious themes and traditions to be passed on from generation to generation in the Pitre family. Our Maman’s generation certainly did their part in upholding this legacy. We will very shortly present a video/slide show presentation of the highlights of our Maman’s early life as a young girl right up to the present day.

My brother Pierre and I lovingly assembled the many photos that you will see and Brent Roy, one of Pierre’s sons-in-law, also helped with the technical aspect. What is really and truly special about this presentation is that all the music and songs that you will hear are either Mom’s favourite songs from her youth and adult life or her and her family actually singing songs themselves! Approximately 14 years ago, Maman, aunt Therèse Gamache, aunt Florence LeFebvre and uncle Adrien Pitre got together and recorded for themselves and posterity a CD of tunes entitled Pitre Family Songs of Home , with the help of Florence’s daughter, Thérese Gatien.

We thought this so heartfelt and beautiful as well as touching that we have included a few in the soundtrack of the presentation that you are about to watch. The first voice you will hear on the recording is Lucille Fagnan herself, so… enjoy!

I have to add to this that I was certainly the recipient of my grandmother's  love of language arts. She used to tell me how proud she was of getting H's for all of her writing assignments in school. And I know that Mom learned well at her knee, because later as I was writing essays, articles and occasional speeches, she would go over them with me line by line, to make sure they were the best they could be. She even taught me the trick of reading everything out loud to spot mistakes.

At the time I thought it might be a little much.

But as I write today, I am so so grateful for the love of language and writing fundamentals that they both gave me.

This one's for you Mom.

This one's for you Memere (Grandma in French).