EVANGELINE, A TALE OF ACADIE
Our story and the legend of Evangeline
Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, is an epic poem published in 1847 by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It describes the betrothal of a fictional Acadian girl named Evangeline Bellefontaine to her beloved, Gabriel Lajeunesse, and their separation as the British deported the Acadians from Acadie, modern day Nova Scotia. The poem then follows Evangeline across the landscapes of America as she spends years in a search for him, at some times being close to Gabriel without realizing he was near. Finally she settles in Philadelphia and, as an old woman, works as a Sister of Mercy among the poor. While tending the dying during an epidemic she finds Gabriel among the sick, and he dies in her arms.
In 1907, Judge Felix Voorheis, a St. Martinville, Louisiana resident wrote the book Acadian Reminiscences: The True Story of Evangeline. He committed to the page stories told to him by his grandmother who said that she was the adoptive mother of a girl named Emmeline Labiche, whose story Longfellow heard, and who renamed her Evangeline presumably for creative effect. In his version, the lovers reunite not in Philadelphia but in St. Martinville, under a Live Oak tree that stretches its branches toward the chocolate brown waters of the Bayou Teche. They embrace passionately and all was well until Gabriel (actual name Louis) revealed that he had married in the years that passed. Emmeline later went insane and died.
Among the sites that claim a relation to these figures are a house north of Lafayette, Louisiana, which supposedly belonged to Louis, and the grave of Emmeline in St. Martinville. The “Evangeline Oak” tree in St. Martinville also lays claim to marking the original meeting place of Emmeline and Louis and still stands today.
Voorheiis’ book was a huge hit in Southern Louisiana as at that time, Cajuns were decidedly second class citizens. When Voorheis connected the immensely sympathetic Evangeline’s story with local Louisiana soil, her determination and loyalty, it was a rallying point of pride for Cajuns as a group.
A folk hero was born.