By CAROL ANNE BLITZER
Advocate staff writer
July 12, 2012
On July 14, people of France and Francophiles around the world celebrate French National Day, or Bastille Day, to commemorate the storming of the Bastille in 1789 at the beginning of the French Revolution.
This year, the date will hold a special significance for members of L’Assemblée Française, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
L’Assemblée Française was founded in 1962 to encourage the speaking of the French language and to help perpetuate the French culture in Baton Rouge and throughout Louisiana. The idea to form the group came from Eleanor Evans (later Hubbell), a member of the Foreign Language Department at Southeastern Louisiana University. She enlisted help from local Francophiles Ernest Gueymard, managing editor of the State-Times, and Cecil Taylor, dean of the LSU College of Arts and Sciences.
“Eleanor came to LSU from the University of Kentucky, where she was very involved in Alliance Française (an international organization focused on education),” said Lillie Gallagher, an original member of L’Assemblée Française and chairwoman of the 50th anniversary celebration. “She asked Pete Taylor about forming an Alliance Française here. The three of them formed L’Assemblée Française because they wanted our organization to be more of a social group.”
Eleanor Evans’ husband, Calvin Evans, a member of the LSU foreign languages faculty, was the organization’s first president.
Taylor explained the real purpose of the organization in an Advocate interview shortly after the founding. “Our main idea is to provide a reason for Francophiles to get together and talk, to perfect their knowledge of the language and attitudes,” he said. “The French programs give a core to the meetings, a starting point for discussion.”
The State-Times for Jan. 14, 1963, reported the organization’s first event, a talk by Robert Picquet, consul general of France in New Orleans. It was held in the Maison Française, the French House, on the LSU campus. The article quoted unnamed members who found the location “especially appropriate,” since “the French House was originally built to be a center of French culture and French speaking at LSU.”
Madeleine Campbell, one of the organization’s early presidents, said that the group originally met 10 times a year. “Of course, we celebrated the 14th of July, but we also met once a month in the Vieux Carré Room at the LSU Union,” she said. “We had speakers, slides and a variety of activities.”
Travelogs, French singers, discussions of French food and wines, talks by LSU professors, historical presentations and visits from French students or American students studying in France were among the presentations at the meetings. There were parties at Houmas House and Goodwood Plantation and plays and musical performances. There were visits from French ambassadors and consuls and Masses conducted in French by the Revs. Cleo Milano and Frank Uter.
“I was president for six years,” Campbell said. “That represented 60 programs. That was a lot.”
An early news account describes a meeting completely in French attended by 100 members at the Louisiana State Library. “A true connoisseur of the language will find it sheer heaven, as his trained ear tunes in the pure French of the Parisian-born or the Louisiana Creole — the delightful dialect of the Acadian descendants, with the northern-France accent mixed with Indian and English influence — and the Anglicized version of those who have learned it only in the classrooms,” reporter Bill Holtman wrote.
The organization became more involved when the state Legislature was considering the creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL. Campbell recalls attending a meeting with Taylor and Gueymard to promote the formation of CODOFIL, which was created in 1968.
From the beginning, the organization’s most important event each year is the Bastille Day celebration. The Morning Advocate reported on one of the early such events in July 1966, when Hosea Phillips, “a noted student of the French language,” spoke on the survival of the French language in Louisiana through the oral tradition.
At that celebration, Campbell, a native of France, described Bastille Day celebrations in her childhood years. “Every Bastille Day was one that ended with a discussion, somewhat heated in the French manner, over the republicans versus the royalists,” Campbell said.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the organization reduced the number of programs and social events to a more manageable number, and by the 1990s, L’Assemblée Française had become mainly a social organization with two events a year, a Twelfth Night party in January and the annual Bastille Day celebration on July 14. “You can see all the white hair in the members,” Gallagher said with a laugh. Meetings are also no longer conducted in French.
The 50th anniversary celebration on July 14 begins with a reception at St. Joseph Cathedral followed by Mass celebrated in French by the Rev. Paul Counce, pastor of the cathedral. Later that evening, members will gather for cocktails and a Moulin-Rouge Cabaret Dinner Soirée.
Longtime member Mabel Smith saved invitations, programs and pictures from L’Assemblée Française events since 1980, when she joined the organization. “She so lovingly preserved (these items) by dedicating so much unselfish time, as well as funds to ensure that the L’Assemblée organization is not forgotten,” said Andrea Grenier, who is assisting with the celebration.
Smith’s plan is to donate the scrapbooks to the Baton Rouge Collection at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. “The final entries will be copies of the invitation, program, menu, news articles and pictures of our 50th anniversary celebration of July 14, 2012,” said Smith’s daughter, Kathleen Smith Young.