Feast of St. Jean Baptiste will bring together new and old at citywide cultural event

Feast of St. Jean Baptiste will bring together new and old at citywide cultural event

Albert Beauparlant, dressed in the period dress of Field Marshal Fernand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander of all forces in World War I, displays pamphlets jointly produced by the Rhode Island Heritage Commission and Rhode Island Publications Society on Rhode Island’s ethnic heritage. The pamphlets will be distributed at the June 25 Feast of St. Jean Baptiste, a multi-ethnic heritage event that will also feature characters from Woonsocket’s history in period dress. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – Planning is underway for the Feast of St. Jean Baptiste, a citywide multi-ethnic heritage event organized by the Woonsocket Pothier Foundation under the direction of Executive Director Albert Beauparlant.

Beauparlant, who previously coordinated the city’s 100th and 125th anniversary celebrations, said the June 25 event will serve as a “homecoming” celebrating Woonsocket’s French-Canadian heritage as well as its newer immigrant cultures. The evening event will take place on and around Main Street and include music, children’s activities, ethnic food, cultural displays and opportunities to receive information on education, economic opportunities and city pride.

While the event will take place in a festive atmosphere, Beauparlant said it was prompted by a conversation with Woonsocket resident and event volunteer Kim Deacon during which she brought his attention to the desperate circumstances facing many of the city’s children and the need to bring residents together to address these concerns.

“Right now, the statistics in the city – no politician really wants to address it,” he said. “We are the highest in child neglect and abuse in the state, we are the highest in opioid deaths in the state, and we are the highest in domestic violence in the state.”

In addition to cultural and educational booths, the event will feature resources to help connect families to services they need, including counselors from Butler Hospital, free haircuts and dental screenings, and representatives of local community organizations. In the main area, a large barbecue staffed by volunteers will feed an expected 2,500 children free of charge.

“We’re not changing the world, we’re not saving the world. All this is simply a gesture of kindness reaching out to the most in need of the city,” said Beauparlant.

In a return to the annual Feast of St. Jean Baptiste celebrated in the city until 1946, the event will begin with a French Mass while a simultaneous interfaith service takes place on a separate stage. Ten characters commemorating the city’s heritage, including Mayor-Governor Aram Pothier, Msgr. Charles Dauray, baseball player Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie and President Abraham Lincoln, who spoke in the city in 1860, will attend the evening in full historical dress.

Beauparlant himself will attend as Field Marshal Fernand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander of all forces in World War I, who visited the city in 1921 to recognize Woonsocket’s contributions during the war. For Beauparlant, the opportunity to celebrate his own family’s French-Canadian heritage while also reaching out to Woonsocket’s many ethnic and cultural groups makes for a special occasion.

“This is my capstone event for the city of Woonsocket after doing events for 30 years,” he said.

As during previous citywide events, the main entryway will feature a large art installation, this one modeled after the archways seen in photos of historical Feasts of St. Jean Baptiste. Beauparlant said the 28-foot-high, 32-foot-wide archway, designed by Tony Makalinaw, will feature LED lights and be “more beautiful” than the 72-foot Arc de Triomphe that graced Monument Square during the 125th celebration in 2013.

The event will be put on with the assistance of a $10,000 grant from the Heritage Harbor Foundation, along with contributions from major sponsors and fundraising events. A recent fundraiser at Savini’s Pomodoro restaurant raised $3,000, placing organizers about halfway toward their $34,000 goal.

Beauparlant said he anticipates the event to draw about 10,000 people, a smaller crowd than attended the 125th celebration. While the scale will be smaller, the goal, he said, is the most important of any event he has organized, with a message focused on diversity and unifying city residents in the face of tremendous challenges.

“I’m looking for a more powerful message,” he said. “Less crowd, bigger message.”