Father Clement Thibodeau: Remembered for his cultural contributions

A well spoken advocate for Maine’s Franco-American and the Acadian cultures, Father Clement Thibodeau, was 85 at the time of his death.

Father Clement Thibodeau

Father Clement Thibodeau was a priest with an Acadian heritage.

Unfortunately, the circumstances that caused Father Thibodeau’s death remains unknown. His disappearance July 15, 2017, called for Diocesan prayers and formal searches, until the September 30, discovery of his death was reported in Aroostook County news (here). Perhaps, the  priest became lost and disoriented while driving near his home in Caribou, Maine. His death was announced by the Diocese of Portland, after several months of praying and searching. This blog is a tribute to “Father Clem”, and helps to support his pride in being an Acadian and Franco-American, who shared his heritage with friends and parishioners. In a personal way, Father Clem’s life story represented the history of two French minority ethnic populations, being the Quebecois and the Acadians.

A celebration of  Father Clem’s life must include his pride about growing up in the Acadian town of Caribou and while, later, serving as a priest in Maine’s Franco-American and bi-lingual English speaking parishes. Two published articles featured his ethnic pride, and his understanding about the special Franco-American and Acadian history, described in his biography and writing.

Quiet Presence is a Franco-American anthology

“Quiet Presence” included a biography about Father Clement Thibodeau (L’Heureux photograph)

Father Clem had many friends throughout the Portland Diocese, and also as an alum of Caribou High School, and Saint Francis College in Biddeford. Yet, many people came to know him when he was among the featured biographies in “Quiet Presence: Historires de Fanco-Americains de New England“, as one in a series of Franco-American biographies, written a Dyke Hendrickson, and published in 1980, by Guy Gannett Publishing Co., in Portland.

Father Clement Thibodeau: Seeing Both Sides“, is an article in “Quiet Presence“, whereby the experiences of being both Acadian and Franco-American were presented in, more or less, a parallel narrative.

In the biography, it was reported that Father Clement Thibodeau adapted to his transfer from Springvale, Maine, where he was a parish priest for about 17 years, to move to the remote reaches of Eagle Lake, Maine. Indeed, the cultural distance he traveled was not as lengthy as the 350 miles of separation implied. In other words, going to Eagle Like, after living in the Springvale and Sanford “mill towns”, and near New Hampshire’s industrial cities like Rochester, and having graduated from Saint Francis College in Biddeford, was, really, like going back home. He was returning to the rural community, in northern Maine, close to his Caribou, childhood home.

In fact, Father Clem made the successful transitions, to wherever he was assigned by the Diocese, because he spoke French and English, without an accent.

In the Aroostook Maine community of Caribou, where Father Clem grew up, his life experienced the characteristics not evident in other New England communities, especially in the cities and towns where the mills and factories were located.  Where he grew up, the French were largely the descendants of the Acadians, who had been dispersed from Nova Scotia in 1755, by the British, during the terrible episode called Le Grand Dérangement  (the great upheaval).  Acadians who managed to escape the displacement, settled the Northern Aroostook communities, before the Quebecois migrated into New England. Later, during the industrial expansions of communities like Woonsocket, Fall River and Lewiston, when French Canadians were rapidly migrating and immigrating to fill workforce needs, the French who lived in Eagle Lake, Fort Kent, Madawaska, Van Buren and Caribou were already settled. They were natives to Maine, before the French-Canadians began to arrive.

In the “Quiet Presence” article, Father Clem spoke about returning to serve the people in Aroostook County.  “It’s like going back to childhood. I chose to come back to northern Maine, and plan to immerse myself in the lives of the locals,” he said.

In another article, Father Clem wrote an essay for “Voyages: A Maine Franco-American Reader“, edited by Nelson Madore and Barry Rodrigue. Writing from Caribou, Father Clem wrote “The French Catholics in Maine“. He described why Franco-American Catholics, who are a significant population in the Diocese of Portland’s religious population, are more numerous in the state’s middle and southern areas, like Waterville, Augusta, Lewiston, Brunswick, Rumford, Westbook, Biddeford and in Sanford-Springvale.  These cities were the destinations for the waves of migrants and immigrants from the Province of Quebec and, to some extent, from Prince Edward Island (they settled in Rumford). French-Canadians settled these areas because of the rapidly expanding work force required during the industrial revolution, in New England’s textile, paper and shoe making industries. In fact, in the Maine task force report, published about Franco-Americans, the data collected demonstrates how the Diocese of Portland continues to receive considerable support from the French Roman Catholics, who are the descendants of the Quebecois, and other Canadian immigrants and who remained to settle in the industrial cities.

He described how Franco-American Catholics were raised to accept the slogan, “Perdre sa langue c’est perdre sa foi” (Loss of the – French- language leads to the loss of faith).  “So closely identified were the Catholic faith and the French language that the same evangelical fervor served to promote both. In fact, the ‘Melting Pot’ ideal of assimilating into the culture of the United States was even rejected by church leaders, who felt that the Franco-American Catholics were not like other ethnic minorities.”

Writing in the “Voyages” article, Father Clem provided a researched chronology about the Diocese of Portland, including a brief history about Bishop Jean Lefevre de Cheverus (1768-1836), who was French and the Bishop of Boston. The article also highlighted the contributions of the French Canadian women religious. In conclusion, Father Clem made the point about how important the French Canadians have been to the Roman Catholic Diocese in Portland and in Maine’s history. “The French speaking religious left an indelible mark on all the people of Maine,” he wrote.

A link to Father Clement Thibodeau’s obituary is here.

Maine’s people, including the Franco-Americans and Acadians, can appreciate the contributions made to the state’s history and culture, by referring to the life and writings, by Father Clement Thibodeau.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.