My trip to Old Mines, Mo.

Ms. Monica told me that I had to start my article with how God worked in my life today. I’m not sure I can do that when I write the actual article, but I think this will be okay. So, here goes.

My two classmates — Bridgit Bowden and Jake Godin — and I are teaming up to write a story about Missouri French, a dialect of French spoken only in Missouri. The speakers are the descendants of the French fur traders from the 17th century. Today, there might only be a dozen or so people who are still fluent. That has made it very difficult to track down sources, especially since most people who still know the language are older and live in rural areas of the northern Ozarks. But, nonetheless, we’ve persisted.

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This morning I drove down to Old Mines, the old French settlement, for mass at St. Jaochim Catholic Church. It’s the old French church that was the center of the French-speaking community of the Ozarks way back when. I didn’t know anyone going in to this.

As soon as I got there, an older man approached me.

“Are you a Coleman?”

“Nope, I’m just visiting.”

“Oh…you look like a Coleman. Where are you visiting from?”

Old mines seems like the kind of place where someone can look at you and try to guess which family you’re from. Apparently I look like a Coleman — and I was sitting in the Coleman pew section of church, anyway.

Our conversation carried on, and it turns out he was the retired priest of the parish. I told him what I was wanting to do, and he introduced me to Ms. Natalie Villmer — she’s from a French-speaking family in the area. She’s been interviewed a lot, and doesn’t have much time, but she invited me back to her house for breakfast after mass. Ms. Natalie is a member of the Rural Parish Workers of Christ the King, a local organization. She lives with several other members in an old plantation home nearby.

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I joined them all for breakfast, and we talked. What friendly people. I’m a firm believer that, if you want to write about a group of people, you have to get to know them first. This was especially true in this situation, since the French-speaking population of Missouri “will only be found if they want to be found.” Back in the day, it was considered backward to speak French in this part of the country, and it was actively discouraged, even by French speakers. It only took a generation or two for the language to nearly die out. In 2013, it’s on its dying breath.

Oh, and what a great breakfast. When was the last time you had homemade coffee cake?

In the end, Ms. Natalie let me record her singing a song in Missouri French, and take her photo. We’re planning on doing a longer interview on the phone sometime. She’s a hard lady to get ahold of — one of the other deaconesses in her home is in her mid-90s and has Alzheimer’s. In fact, the entire group deserves to be photographed. Maybe that’s my winter break project.

In short, I woke up this morning not knowing a soul in Old Mines. By noon, I had cultivated several relationships that I hope carry on beyond this story. My hosts knew this — which is why Ms. Monica wanted me to write about what God did for me today. It was a good day.

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Comments
3 Responses to “My trip to Old Mines, Mo.”
  1. Joseph Gonzalez says:

    So did you get another chance to interview her?

    • Not yet. We’ve spoken on the phone a couple times since, but school/work makes it hard to get down there. I hope to visit for the fete in August (A regional festival celebrating French heritage).

  2. Mary Meyer Dill says:

    I spent many summers with the Rural Parish Workers of Christ the King and know Miss Natalie very well. Did she show you the little local French museum? Ask her about it. Mary Meyer Dill – originally from St. Louis and living now in Atlanta.

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