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The last Walloons of Wisconsin

At the end of XIXe century, thousands of Walloon peasants set sail for the United States, taking away their cultures and traditions. What remains of Walloon after a hundred and fifty years of American life? Report from the Belgian magazine Medor.

On the vast plains of North America, endless roads are swept by cohorts of pickups. After Chicago the Wisconsin “dairy country” and the city of Green Bay open.

After the capital, traffic disappears completely, and the suburbs are spread out on a strip of land that gradually dips into Lake Michigan: the Porte Peninsula. As we move forward, the verdant landscapes of the Upper Midwest take on familiar accents: the grain silos and the red brick farmhouses are strangely reminiscent of the Walloon Hesbaye. A chapel of Saint-Ghislain rising at the corner of the road confirms our arrival in the Walloon Historical District, the Belgian enclave of the United States. Welcome to our house.

Luxembourg, Wisconsin. On the boulevards which crisscross the largest “Walloon” agglomeration, nothing lets show the slightest belgitude. In cafes and restaurants, however, there are some typical dishes. At Rose’s Family, on red Skai seats, Susie Thiry is sipping coffee. Belgian by name, she admits that she no longer knows much about the culture of her ancestors. According to her, the only tangible legacy of this culture is “Guts [saucisses] and pies ”. “The best in the county can be found at Marchant’s Foods”, the supermarket in the village of Brussels, 30 kilometers away. On the shelves of said supermarket, between donuts and chips, an outdated sign indicates the “World Famous Belgian Pies”. But, victims of their success, the stofé pies [pâtisseries au fromage blanc, spécialité de la ville de Wavre] are absent.

Another essential place for “ethnic food”, the Belgian Delight is located just outside Brussels. Inside, a decor loaded with traditional paintings and photos, with a menu that is just as much: cabbage sausages, waffles and broths. The two bosses, the Vandertie brothers, are absent, but Rose Mae, their 85-year-old mother, taps the card in the back of the room. The “couyon”, or “couillon”, Walloon belote, is a sport that has endured in the region.

No one will speak Walloon in ten years

The resort of the Couyon League of Luxembourg (United States) is at the Farmhouse Bar & Grill. In a dim light, fifties with caps line up the balls (folds) while drinking Milwaukee beers; real institution, the couyon tournaments take place twice a week, mainly between locals. But if the game [jeu] is named in Walloon, all ignore the intrinsic definition of the “couillon”.

Rose Mae Vandertie, 85, plays Walloon belote. Colin Delfosse / Médor
Rose Mae Vandertie, 85, plays Walloon belote. Colin Delfosse / Médor

“In Wisconsin, individuals are steeped in this Belgian culture sometimes even without realizing it. The language has practically disappeared, for lack of being taught in schools, but the feeling of belonging to the community is still very present ”, explains Theresa Alexander (née Gérondal), 85 years old and head of the Belgian Heritage Center. Located in the desecrated church of Notre-Dame-de-Neiges located in Namur (United States), the building houses a museum containing the archives of the community. “Walloon was transmitted here orally, in family and at school, she remembers.When the US government finally sent English-speaking teachers in the 1960s, transmission was lost, despite some attempts to preserve Walloon. I still know about thirty Belgians who speak the language fluently, all of my generation. Within ten years, they will all be gone. ”

For Theresa, what still binds the American Walloons today are fairs, bars and churches. Because, in Wisconsin, unlike Wallonia, religion has remained a powerful marker of socialization.

“Young people are no longer interested”

A breeding farm in the village of Brussels Colin Delfosse / Médor
A livestock farm in the village of Brussels Colin Delfosse / Médor

On this morning of October 22 in Champion (still in the United States), a ballet of golf cars and pick-ups meet in the parish parking lot. The entire Catholic community on the peninsula throngs the church bathed in the lights of Indian summer. Today we celebrate the 160th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in this county. Planted between two fields of corn, the sanctuary of Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Secours is more like the modest chapel than the cathedral of Lourdes. But Corrie Campbell, the site’s new communications director, is optimistic: “More and more Americans are coming to visit our sanctuary. We are the only place of appearance recognized by the Catholic Church in the United States, potentially making it a great center of pilgrimage. ”

For Belgians on the peninsula, this story of appearance has been linked to that of the community since always. Adèle Brise, the visionary, was born in Dion-le-Val (Belgium) in 1831, and all Belgians participated, directly or indirectly, in the processions through the past years. Many see the attempt to “nationalize” the sanctuary as dispossession of their heritage. For Margareth, who teaches Walloon in her spare time, the Virgin’s message was transmitted in Walloon:

Adèle Brise had a poor command of French and did not speak English. The Blessed Virgin must have addressed her in Walloon. ”

Clifford Abts, 92, a former farmer and one of the last Walloon speakers in the United States. Colin Delfosse / Médor
Clifford Abts, 92, a former farmer and one of the last Walloon speakers in the United States. Colin Delfosse / Médor

Clifford Abts, 92, has long attended the Church of Our Lady of Champion: he was an altar boy during Marian processions. He and his sister Agatha (86) are part of the last circle of those who learned Walloon from their parents. They saw their community gradually melt into the American model.

“When I got to high school, I didn’t speak a word of English. At recess, we were punished as soon as we said a word from Walloon ”, says Clifford. Regional languages ​​have long been stigmatized in the United States. They were, as with us, assimilated to a certain ignorance and a lack of education. The Belgians of Wisconsin have progressively prohibited themselves from speaking Walloon.

“Today we are trying to keep him alive, but the young people are no longer interested”, asserts Clifford. Clinging to his harmonica, he begins When the Saints Go Marching In, an occasional gospel.

Colin Delfosse

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