Virgil Benoit: a personal retrospective by Dick Bernard

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Virgil Benoit Dec 19, 2011, at Cafe Aster, Minneapolis. First in-person meeting with Virgil about Franco-Fete 2012

The eleven of us who were the Twin Cities Franco-Fete Committee* on site Sep 28-30 are preparing to debrief this years event on November 15. This seems a good time to recognize the man whose vision and determination and passion led to Twin Cities Franco-Fete in the first place: Dr. Virgil Benoit of Red Lake Falls MN and the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks and IF Midwest.
Readers who were at the event know that Virgil had a serious automobile accident three days before Franco-Fete began, Tuesday night Sep 25.
As I write, Virgil is recuperating at home. My evidence is occasional e-mail messages, and a response he just filed to the base blog post about Franco-Fete! This is no epitaph or eulogy, in other words. It is a small tribute from someone who’s learned much about his French-Canadian culture through years of contact, mostly indirect with Dr. Benoit.
We all have our stories. Here, very briefly is mine, as pieced together from assorted documents I retain here at home.
I first “met” Dr. Benoit in the Les Francais d’Amerique/French in America calendar for the year 1985. There were to be sixteen more of these calendars, the last for 2002, which were a joint project of Virgil Benoit and Marie-Reine Mikesell of Chicago, all printed in Grand Forks. I have the calendars through 2001 – a precious possession (why didn’t I get 2002?!). The color photographs from the collection were posted and remain on the internet here.
While we lived far apart, geographically, I seemed often to be somewhere within his sphere.
The first time in person was probably L’Heritage Tranquille conference in November, 1985, at the new Riverplace development just below Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Minneapolis. He did the keynote at that conference, and a group of us had come down from Hibbing for it. Later, I learned he had essentially organized the conference for Concordia Language Villages, and I still have the book, L’Heritage Tranquille, which was sold at the conference. Here’s what Leonard Inskip of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to say: L’Heritage Tranquille 001
The next year, 1986, some of us from Hibbing went over to Red Lake Falls for a fall event, Le Festival Rural, which was in the town hall of the community. It was a stimulating day of immersion in things French-Canadian, including guests from St. Boniface MB. Lorraine deMillo of Hibbing had told us about the event and later wrote a summary about it for the newsletter I edited, Chez Nous: Virgil Benoit:Midwest Fr001
Time went on, and I recall seeing him at Alliance Francaise events in Minneapolis. I was at an event, Espaces du Francophone, of which he was part, which includes a photo of him at the time (1989):Espaces Francophone 1989001
At one point he came down for the St. Paul Winter Carnival and I introduced him to a couple of elderly Nun friends, French-Canadian, at Bethany Convent at the College of St. Catherine. It was a rich moment for Sr. Ann Thomasine Sampson and Sr. Ellen Murphy. They with Virgil in his buffalo coat.

Virgil and Michael Rainville with the Buffalo Coat January 20, 2012

Le Festival Rural at some point moved to rural Red Lake Falls to Huot Crossing on the Red Lake River, where the Old Crossing Treaty 1863001 transferred the rich land of Red River from the Indians to the whites. It was the last major event of the 1862 “Indian Wars” whose 150th anniversary is being commemorated this year. I traveled north for a few of these events, now called Chautauqua, all organized by Virgil Benoit.

Virgil Benoit "up north" spring 2008 photo by Anne Dunn

About 2007, Virgil had the introductory event for IF Midwest at the University of North Dakota. I was able to make it to all of the subsequent events: first in Grand Forks; thence a tour including my ancestral home parish at Oakwood, places like Pembina, Bathgate, Leroy and Belcourt; in 2010 in Bismarck, 2011 in Fargo, and now setting root in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis St. Paul.
Let’s leave it at that.
A hardy Merci Beaucoup to Dr. Benoit for celebrating a rich culture: the French-Canadians (or whatever we happen to call ourselves) of the Midwest!

Virgil Benoit with Francine Roche and her niece from Montreal, July 17, 2012, also at Cafe Aster

More about Franco-Fete here; more about French-Canadians in the Midwest here.
* (in alphabetical order): Dick Bernard, Bob Dedrick, Mike Durand, Jerry Foley, Pierre Girard, Mark Labine, Fr. Jules Omalanga, Jane Peck, Marie Trepanier, Jon Tremblay, Mary Ellen Weller

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