"You must be descendants of the Huguenots", Karl's step-father Don said to me over 40 years ago.
"Oh no," I replied. "We have been Catholic forever."
Perhaps that twinkle in his blue eyes indicated a deeper understanding of history than we ever knew.
Gobeil is my paternal and Bilodeau is my maternal relation.
Madame Marguerite Morisson is a retired teacher who has been researching the immigration of the people from les Deux-Sèvres (which includes Niort where my Gobeil ancestors came from) to La Nouvelle-France for over 25 years. At 86 she is a vibrant and intelligent woman who is passionate about her "volunteer work". She is awaiting the publication of her second book on the subject and is a walking encyclopedia of information. I count my lucky stars that my calls and visits to various departments led me to her. I could have sat with her for ages to listen to all the stories, the links and associations between families, the finds in old and ancient documents, and the joie de vivre she brings to the storytelling. This, however, is not a fairytale. It is my story, my history.
We met Madame Morisson at the Departmental Archives of Niort, and we followed her little blue Renault as she sped down familiar roads to "La Ferme de Chey", in the countryside on the outskirts of Niort. This is where Jean Gobeil and Jeanne Guiet lived with their four daughters before leaving for La Nouvelle-France in 1665. Today, this farm is the home of the "Chaleuil dau pays niortais", a cultural centre which is part museum and part opportunity to keep up traditional crafts.
Waiting for us at La Ferme de Chey were Madame Danièle Billaudeau, Monsieur André Triquet and Monsieur Philippe Boireau. Along with Madame Marguerite Morisson, these four volunteers took time from their busy day to welcome us warmly, give us an informative tour of the Chaleuil, and talk about our ancestors, their traditions and way of life.
A chaleuil is a little lamp that was hung in the houses of my ancestors to light the evening. The "Chaleuil dau pays niortais" continues to light the way for those seeking information about their roots and their traditions.
A very old sewing machine, older than the Singer machine found at Mémère Bilodeau's.
Weaving was a big part of what the people from Chey did back in the 17th century.
Danièle Billaudeau, Marguerite Morisson
Danièle Billaudeau, Marguerite Morisson
These are some of the clothes of the era, both for every day and for special occasions.
The bonnets that the women wore have an extremely interesting history.
Round, square, pointed, embroidered, long side ribbons to prove the father was wealthy, and all sorts of subtle differences that carried special messages.
At one time, the women (who were relegated to be seen but not heard) started their own kind of protest by making the peak of their bonnets point forward, in an aggressive fashion, to show that they did not approve of what was happening. Protest through bonnets!
(Rebifiette - signe de rébellion)
La coiffe carrée de Niort - Claque
(Boîte à sucre - Plissée en coeur)
For all you Canadians who may have thought this was some sort of sled, it's not. It is actually put in between the bed sheets and a warming pan is slipped in the middle. The sheets are kept away from the warming pan and have no chance of scorching.
A baby walker and a "jolly jumper" further in the background.
A shower basin. You bathe by pouring water over your head and the water gathers in the pan. The spout is handy to pour the water out.
Karl, snapping photos along the way.
Not just any old shoe. A shoe looking very battered and used. "Moi mes souliers ont beaucoup voyagé." Words from a Québecois song - Felix Leclerc.
Many of the farm tools and implements.
Karl and André talking "old times".
This is a seeder. The blades open the ground, the seeds drop in, and the ground is closed up.
Madame Marguerite Morisson regaling us with wonderful background information. She knows the "sidebar" to everything.
Marguerite Morisson, Marguerite Gobeil, Danièle Billaudeau
We left the area that was the "museum" and walked some of the land of the farm.
Buildings for cows and horses, as well as for people.
There are groups from Québec who have come to learn about their ancestors, and a plaque has been erected to commemorate the visit that occurred in 2008.
The metal pipe coming out of this building is very misleading because the building itself is actually the oldest on the farm.
In another section of the buildings, there are traditional crafts that continue to be taught and produced.
There is the recaning of chairs and the making of various styles of baskets. It is called "vanerie".
André stands next to big baskets that were used to store produce, like big flat white beans that are a specialty of this area.
This basket was used to store fish when going fishing.
Philippe and Karl listen to André explain how rope is made. Four strands are attached to these four hooks. Then they are all attached to the hook an the opposite board where you turn a crank to twist the rope together.
Multiple twists make this an extremely strong rope.
Philippe uses an old vise to demonstrate how to hold a piece of wood that will be honed into a handle for a tool.
André flattens some cane material for the "vanerie".
Peering into the huge communal bread oven.
Looking above my head, I spot the paddle used to load the bread loaves into the oven.
Once the fire has died, the ashes are scraped into this huge vessel. A wet broom-like whisk is used to clean the remnants of any coals before the breads are slipped into the oven. After all, you don't want to find a little piece of coal imbedded in your morning bread!
This is the bread trough where the flour is kept, the bread is mixed and left to rise a first time, and then kneaded. (Under this shiny and modern cover).
All the loaf pans for bread. Many of the breads were round "country loaves" and were put in the oven without a pan.
A cupboard with narrow pull-out shelving where the breads would rise. Perfect for those long baguettes!
One of the Gobeil reunions with a group from Québec.
Our hosts: André Triquet, Danièle Billaudeau, Marguerite Morisson, Philippe Boireau
Marguerite Morisson, Marguerite Gobeil, Danièle Billaudeau - Les Trois Grâces!
A framed painting that Mme Morisson has given to the Chaleuil.
Marguerite Morisson, Karl Trommeshauser, Marguerite Gobeil
André Triquet, Karl Trommeshauser, Marguerite Morisson, Marguerite Gobeil, Danièle Billaudeau
Karl & Marguerite
I was given an incredible amount of information from both the Bilodeau and Gobeil sides of the family. I now know who Jean Gobeil's parents and grand-parents were. I know that the Bioldeau family came from Pioussay, a place in the Deux-Sèvres region. I have a few of the newsletters that the Bilodeau association publishes regularly. I was given a poster of the big event that happened at Chey in 2008. Even a CD of traditional music called "Veillée d'chey nous, Le Chaleuil dau pays niortais." More than all these tangibles, I was made to feel warmly welcomed among family. From 14h 00 to 18h 00, I had a 4-hour history lesson given by "cousins" who were kind and more than generous with their time and knowledge. It is a visit that I will never forget and will cherish forever.
We took time to celebrate the family reconnection with cookies and a generous glass of Pineau, the liqueur which is a specialty of the region.
(I still have many photos of this visit but it is not possible to add all of them to this posting.)
Danièle Billaudeau is currently the Vice-President of the Genealogical Association. (As an aside, she looks more like a Gobeil than a Bilodeau. I saw a lot of Tante Aline in her features and mannerisms.) She provided me with a detailed file of the Bilodeau family whose spelling changed and morphed over the years.
Jacques Bilodeau, our ancestor, was born around 1636 in Pioussay (Deux-Sèvres) to Antoine Billaudeau and Jeanne Fleury. He arrived in Nouvelle-France in 1652 (earlier than the Gobeil family) on the first ship of the summer season arriving from France that year. He married Geneviève Longchamp in Québec (Notre-Dame), died in 1712 and was buried at St-François, Ile-d'Orléans.
Danièle Billaudeau gave me copies of baptismal and marriage certificates and other precious documents.
BILODEAU - GOBEIL Reunion
As you can see, there have been links between the Bilodeau and Gobeil families since they first immigrated to Nouvelle-France, and even before when they were still in France. The "Association de Famille Billaudeau" has been doing genealogical research for years and has had a few gatherings of all the Bilodeau cousins.
In 2018, there are plans to invite all the cousins with either the Bilodeau or the Gobeil names to come for a big reunion. In my case, that means a double celebration! So far, they anticipate an 11-day affair with 3 days at Chey, then a drive to the Bioldeau area of Pioussay as well. There will be tours of Niort, La Rochelle, St. Malo, Honfleur (think Samuel de Champlain), with meals, song and dance along the way. They hope to be able to billet the group, not just to save money for the travellers, but especially to forge bonds between the cousins, distant as they may be.
They need to reach the critical number of 30 people, from Québec and western Canada, to make this all worthwhile. If for some reason it cannot be organized for 2018, they will attempt to make it happen in 2019.
I mentioned that many of the Bilodeau and Gobeil cousins from western Canada may have lost their spoken French along the way, but they assured me that they would have translators to make sure everybody understands.
It sounds incredibly special and an opportunity that does not happen often in a lifetime. Karl and I have been coming to France for extended stays for years, and this is the first time I have connected with my past so closely. There is a certain resonance that happens when you walk on the land of your ancestors and feel their spirit within you. It's very powerful.
I am not the one who will be organizing the trip for the western cousins, but I will be getting all the information and will gladly pass it on to you. Please advise if you would like to be added to a distribution list. You don't have to have the dual connection of Gobeil and Bilodeau. You can be connected to either of those families and still be welcomed.
As we talked about those years back in the 17th century, it felt like the stories were very real and had happened not that long ago. We had but to look around and imagine what it was like to bake bread and look after the children and be worried about the crops and animals. So why did my Gobeil ancestors leave? One possible reason is that the commune was getting crowded. With four girl children, (and girls were not prized as highly as boys), my ancestors may have felt squeezed out. Then there is the matter of religion. The local history of that time, the political climate, as well as the research of baptismal and/or marriage certificates indicate that religious conflicts were at the forefront of their daily lives. Some couples were married at the protestant temple by pastors with biblical names like Abraham, and biblical names were indicative of Protestants at that time. The religious unrest was forcing the people in a large part of France to convert to Catholicism. These poor people must have been torn by their religious beliefs on one hand and their need for survival on the other. If they didn't change allegiance, they were stripped of their rights to work and earn a living, their children were taken away to be brought up in Catholic convents, and the persecution often led to death. Records show that once in Nouvelle-France, confirmations took place to show allegiance to the Catholic Church, but records back in France indicate that these same souls had never been baptized. Many of the Protestant records no longer exist but there is a strong probability that the Gobeil family was caught up in this tumult. I most likely am a descendant of Huguenot ancestors who became Catholic in Nouvelle-France. It was a matter of survival. Now that's food for thought!
"We inherit from our ancestors gifts so often taken for granted.
Each of us contains within this inheritance of soul.
We are links between the ages, containing past and present expectations,
sacred memories and future promise."
~ Edward Sellner