Home Town or Home Community:
The Story of the Joseph François Gentil Perret Family
By Aline Gentil Perret-Vallée
My mother, Marie Jeanne Anctil, was born in 1890 in Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatière in Quebec, daughter of Alphonse Anctil and Élisabeth Ouellet. Our ancestors on the Anctil side trace their origins to Normandy, France for as far back as the 1730’s. In 1906, when Mom was sixteen, the entire family moved to St.-Isidore-de-Bellevue, Saskatchewan. In 1913, Grandpa and Grandma Anctil sold their 160-acre farm to move to Marcelin, Saskatchewan. Grandma ran the local hotel with its restaurant while Grandpa worked on neighboring farms. In the early 1920’s, she followed one of her sons, Victor, and two of her daughters, Marie Anne and Adrienne, to Los Angeles, California.
My father was born in Domessin, Savoie, France in 1888. In 1893 when he was only five, his parents, Benoît Gentil Perret and Étiennette Gaillard, immigrated to La Plaine in the Northwest Territories, now Saskatchewan. Their young family consisted of my father Joseph, Émilie, Émile and Marius, all born in France. Thus, I am first generation Canadian on my father’s side but eighth generation Canadian on my mother’s side.
In 1908 Father married Fernande Forestier. They had a son, Joseph, born December 1, 1910 in Duck Lake. Fernande died a few days after Joseph’s birth. He lived until May of the following year. He is buried with his mother in the Duck Lake cemetery.
On September 17, 1912, Father married my mother in Bellevue, Saskatchewan. They lived and raised thirteen children, eleven of whom were born in the town of Duck Lake. The last two were born on the farm after they moved from town in 1929. Today out of thirteen, there are only five remaining. Three of my brothers died before I was born.
Meet my family:
Étienne – July 14, 1913, died December 12, 1981 at 68
Lucien – June 15, 1915, died January 14, 1917 at 1 year 7 months
Marcel – June 23, 1916, died July 3, 1949 at 33
Simone – December 10, 1917
Clément – July 9, 1919
Odilon – September 12, 1920, died November 25, 1999 at 79
André – June 13, 1922, died July 4, 1929 at 7
Paul-Émile – January 1, 1924, died October 3, 1924 at 10 months
Léonard – April 10, 1925
Raymond – May 10, 1927, died October 7, 1993 at 66
Antoine – October 26, 1928
Aline – June 3, 1932 – that’s me, #12
Jeannine – April 16, 1934, died January 5, 1995 at 60
Father died of prostate cancer at 64 in 1952. Mother died peacefully at 79 in 1969.
When I was seven years old, my paternal grandmother Étiennette Gentil Perret died. I remember that day very well. We were all heading to the cemetery in cars when someone closed the door on my right hand. I had to be taken home since it hurt very much.
I never knew my maternal grandparents. My grandfather Alphonse Anctil died in 1915 in Lorenzo, a village close to Marcelin, and my grandmother Élisabeth Anctil died in Los Angeles, California, in 1929 before I was born.
My father produced Duck Lake’s electricity for many years. His business was called “Jos Perret Service Électrique”. He essentially was a carpenter and built many homes, schools and any type of building his customer needed in the surrounding localities. When Dad was growing up, he didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, being the eldest and having to help on the homestead. Nevertheless, he was educated. He read and wrote both English and French, and being a carpenter, knew his mathematics very well.
In 1929, my parents decided to purchase farmland three miles east of Duck Lake and three miles west of the South Saskatchewan River, situated on the northeast quarter of Section 1, Township 44, and Range 2, West of the 3rd Meridian. He built the house where Jeannine and I were born. The family moved from town to their new home in 1930. There the growing boys could find something useful to do in farming.
In 1932, I was born into a world of deep faith, a world of standards and clean living, of love and belonging. It was a world full of intriguing events, a world of French and Canadian culture that opened wide its doors to me. I was born into a world of brothers, a world of farm life with its obligations and hard work. I was born in a world enveloped in creation’s beauty, fresh wonders and rich silence, a world always taller, bigger and stronger than I. I was born in a world of challenges and learning. I love this world in which I first cried and laughed.
Our house on the farm was huge and square built in the Savoie style with four slanted roofs meeting in the center. It had three storeys – the shop where Dad worked, the living area with kitchen, living room, dining room and bedrooms, and the top floor which served as a guestroom or playroom with an attic. Our home was built in a small hill so that the shop, which occupied the entire basement with the pantry, the potato storage, the fresh water well and the cistern, had a ground level entrance while the kitchen door at the back on the main floor also was at ground level. One room on the main floor always intrigued me. We called it “le fumoir” meaning the smoking room. It had three long windows and an outside front door. To my knowledge, it never was used as a smoking room since my Dad smoked his pipe in the kitchen by the stove where he kept his provision of tobacco. On the upper floor of our home, we had one big room with a gable window. It was used mainly for a bedroom when my brothers came visiting. My little sister and I also played school or “la Madame” – meaning playing house – there. An attic under the four slanted sections of the roof surrounded this room. We entered the attic on any of its four sides by means of sliding doors.
The barn was also dug into the same hill. It allowed the animals to get in easily from the front while the hay could be forked from the back inside the hayloft at ground level. Our chicken coop housed turkeys, chickens and geese. We had cattle, pigs and horses each sheltered in a different barn. Naturally, our dog and cat had their jobs to do.
My dad had a sawmill along with the usual sheds on a farm. As a family, we each had our chores to do. My dad would go out and earn a living as a carpenter, plumber, electrician, mechanic. He left the farming to the boys. When harvest time came, I would replace the boys by rounding up the cows and milking them and feeding the pigs.
In early fall, we went through an annual ritual. We would all get in the car with Dad on a Sunday to see how the crops were doing.
Father had built himself a trailer where he lived during his jobs away from home. In those days, his wages were not very high but we survived. With his 1927 Model A Ford truck he would pull his “motor home” anywhere. He taught me to drive this Ford.
He built the Sisters’ convent in town. To me, this building was immense and elegant. I was intimidated whenever I entered it for classes, singing or schooling.
In 1938, my dad went down in local history when he undertook to build a unique church at the shrine in St. Laurent by the South Saskatchewan River. This church and all its furniture were entirely of logs. Every year on July 16th we would go on a pilgrimage of prayer to the St. Laurent Shrine, dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. Sometimes the boys would walk the three miles to it. This was indeed a great spiritual event in our lives. There were prayers, confessions, a candlelight procession that impressed me greatly, a mass, and of course, some fast foods bought at the concession stands. We also took time to chat with friends.
My dad was a soft-spoken man. I held him in awe. He always sang or whistled when he worked. I would observe him making violins, turning legs on his wooden lathe, or turning bolts on his metal lathe. He piled all his wood shavings under his work counter. We started our music career on the violins and guitars he made for us. We first learned the French song, “Ton p’tit chien, Madame, ton p’tit chien, Madame, m’a mordu!” I decided to switch to the guitar. We also had a banjo, a ukelele, a Jew’s harp, a mandolin and an organ which my mom played. Often on summer evenings, we would get together to play and sing on the outside porch. The neighbors enjoyed the entertainment. My brother Clem still has an original violin made by my father.
I also remember seeing my brothers have fun in the snowmobile he had invented. Move over, Mr. Bombadier. Dad also had a windmill and a power plant so we could have electricity in the house along with running water.
Dad had manufactured a rolling bathtub. At one end it had two wheels; at the other it had a handle to guide it from the kitchen, where we would fill it with our bath water, to the bathroom adjoining the boys’ bedroom to Mom and Dad’s.
On some Sunday afternoons, the family would go for a swim followed by a family picnic to the South Saskatchewan River three miles east. I was enthralled when we crossed the river to St. Laurent and back on the ferry. The river was wonderful to behold as it slipped under the ferry.
On other Sundays we would all get in the Ford and drive to La Plaine to visit Uncle Albert’s well-kept farm. It had been Grandpa Benoît’s second homestead. We would then visit next door at Cousin Amédée Cécillon’s. That was a real treat.
Mother was fortunate enough to have obtained a grade 8 education. She taught us how to play French card games during the winter. She also taught us French-Canadian folksongs. When radios came out, we all sang those wonderful country and popular songs.
We learned to dance at house parties. On Sunday afternoons it would start a with ball game at different neighbor’s homes and end with a dance. Even as a little girl, I was often asked to sing at these parties. The first dance I learned was the “Heel and Toe”. I also whistled but Mother would say to me, “Only boys whistle.” I continued to do it anyway. Dad could whistle the beautiful song of the meadowlarks.
My mother was hard-working, inventive, an excellent seamstress and a good cook. I especially remember her doughnuts and her bread. Dad had built her a huge 4’x2’x2′ wooden breadbox on legs where her bread dough would rise. The boys were busy growing up so she had to bake bread every other day. For meals, we sat around a large oval table.
In the winter, it was a thrill to eat taffy on snow just as Mom remembered having done during maple sugar time in Quebec.
In berry-picking season we would go out to the bushes in the fields and pick saskatoons, pincherries, cranberries, chokecherries and hazelnuts. Mom would make preserves in the heat of the summer. Dad learned how to make bannock from the Indians and taught it to Mom. I loved her bannock. Mother also was famous for her dandelion wine relished by visitors.
I hated hearing the pigs squeal when the boys slaughtered them. Neither did I like it when they killed chickens and Mother had to pluck them. She did this stinky job outside over a tub of boiling water. She had the patience of a saint.
Being creative Mother allowed us to experience sewing, baking, drawing and building. She sewed our dresses and transformed bleached flour sacks and old coats into suits, dresses, blouses or skirts.
When she needed money, she would go to her homemade “bank” located in her bedroom. My parent’s headboard was tubular with one huge round brown tube and many smaller vertical ones. She had sawed a slit in the back of the main tube. Whenever she had some change, she would slip it into the slit and it would fall into the leg. If she needed some money, she would lift the leg of the bed, remove the caster and out rolled the wealth.
One fine day she decided she would learn how to drive Dad’s truck. That was when the family lived in town. She got in behind the steering wheel. Starting the vehicle was easy. She got in gear and drove off. At the corner she was going too fast to turn. When she veered right, the car hit the curb and went over it. When she steered left, the car landed in the neighbor’s woodpile.
As we drove into the yard we would be flanked on the left with a row of maple trees, a second row of gooseberry bushes, a third row of raspberry plants and another of blackberries. Mother was so proud to show off her garden and flowers to all visitors.
Each evening during the week we would all be called in to say the rosary and the evening prayers kneeling down each in our favorite spot in the kitchen. I remember the boys not really liking this. We never missed mass on Sundays.
Sometimes when I remember my youth, I become nostalgic about the church bells that would ring daily and that on certain days we could hear at home three miles away. On New Year’s Day my father would give us his blessing for the coming year. This tradition was very important to me.
Sometimes we were punished but were forgiven after we had asked said we were sorry for our mischief. My brothers were often called “les petits coqs” for their tempers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I appreciate my upbringing. In my family there was no abuse or alcoholism. We all belonged, were loved and encouraged.
I remember one time when my little sister wet her pants. One of the boys held her bottom against the wall. There appeared two half-moons which stayed there until mother washed the wall.
Because girls were at a premium in our family, I was nicknamed “Fifille” – “little girl”. Later the boys would tease me and call me “menton pointu” meaning “pointed chin.”
I remember loving to stroll in the woods near the house. I discovered so many beautiful flowers and plants. The woods were also dark and cool in the hot summer air.
I started school at five. My older sister, Simone, would teach the youngest ones at home during the summer. That is probably when she developed her taste for teaching, the profession she later chose to follow. I attended Stobart Public School taught by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary.
We didn’t speak one word of English when we started school. We all learned to read, write and speak English as well as read and write French. And we didn’t have any trouble. I will always remember when I finally caught on to the “th” sound. I was in Grade 1, sitting in the front desk of the second row from the blackboard. The word was “thirty.” Today I wonder why that didn’t click at the words “three,” “thirteen” or twenty-three” before that.
Three of my teachers were outstanding: Sister St. Nil, my French teacher for grades 1 through 6, Sister Eleanor of Jesus, my grades 7 and 8 teacher, and Sister Louise-Aimée, my grade 11 teacher. They inspired me to love learning in all forms especially mathematics, literature, history, English and French. All subjects were important to me. I was highly motivated and hungry for learning. I confess that grade nine was my mischievous year.
All the little ones adored Sister St. Nil. She was so little and gentle. She would play all the outside games with us (Ring-around-a-rosie, London Bridge is falling down, The grand old Duke of York, I wrote a letter to my love, etc.). In her French classes she would tell us that if we were “good”, she would tell us a story at the end of class. Of course, we were good. Her stories were captivating and never-ending. When I was older, during the fifteen-minute recesses we played baseball, my favorite sport.
When I was in grade five, I had a severe appendicitis attack. Mother put a hot water bottle on my aching side but seeing that I got worse, she called Doctor Paré. He told her that if she had done that a few more times I would have died. He then advised her to put cold water instead. Today I’m thankful to be alive.
I have always loved singing so I belonged to the church choir. We were proud of ourselves. We sacrificed some noon recesses to practice for Sunday mass.
In the summer, we travelled to school in a two-wheeled cart. When it rained the boys would put up the steel frame covered with a tarp. The road was a single trail with many hills and a marsh. In the summer that marsh harbored so many beautiful birds and fascinating plants.
In the winter, we used in a horse-drawn caboose. It was heated by a stove made by my father. He used two different sizes of stovepipe about two feet long fitted horizontally one inside the other and to which was attached a smokestack. It was ingenious. The smaller stovepipe was shaped like a scoop. The boys would slide some live coals into it and then insert it in the bigger open-ended stovepipe. On our way back home, if we had some sandwiches left from our lunch, we would toast them on top of the stove and have our after-school snack.
The winters were very hard especially in the late 1930’s. The snow was so high that we had to build a tunnel through it to get to the barn. When the snow was heavy and thick, we would go in the backyard where there was a dip in the hill. There we would dig tunnels and have fun visiting under the snow.
In the winter of 1939, Dad built us a house on a lot close to school and church. Mother and the younger ones attending school would spend our weekdays in town and return home weekends. I often wondered how the men would handle housecleaning. Our tea towels were quite black that winter.
On a regular basis we would deliver an eight-gallon can of cream to the train station to be shipped to the creamery for butter. The cheque would arrive by mail and that would tell us the cost of a pound of butter if we would have had to buy it. My dad had made us a butter churn that sat on the table. The crank on the outside was connected to an open flap inside the churn.
A great event occurred when I was 9. One day we received the news that our cousins, the Courchenes, had moved into town. A whole family of cousins was mine to know and play with! What a treat! I learned many games with them. I admired the miniature village the boys built on the ground outside complete with miniature houses, cars, streets and buildings.
When I was old enough to do the housecleaning, Mom would allow me to change the furniture around in the living room to give it a different look. I used to wash the maple kitchen floor. As the varnish wore off it became so white and smooth that we could lie comfortably on it. I was also taught to be resourceful and independent especially when I asked help to open a door. Mother would say, “What would you do if you were alone?” I still think of that lesson often.
One summer when all the boys had left the farm except Leonard, I drove the tractor for him so he could work the binder to make the sheaves. I learned the famous “e” turns at the corners of the fields to make the perfect square. We didn’t waste any crop that way. When we returned home from the fields, we were covered with dust and dirt. Leonard would just wash his hands and around his lips to eat his lunch. He looked like a masked man.
One day when I was in my Grade 11, I had an argument with Glen Kruger about which tractor was the best. He had a Fordson and we had a Cockshutt. The next day I went to school with MY tractor and parked it in the girls’ schoolyard. When it was time to go home, I flooded the engine and it wouldn’t start. The joke was on me.
At 17 I entered the Novitiate of the teaching order of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary in St. Hyacinth, Quebec. The life was very different for me. We had thick and heavy clothes to wear. The summers down East were so humid and hot that my clothes were wet at night. There was very little humor and a lack of human understanding. Those years were hard ones in some aspects but I accepted that as part of my training for religious life. Since I was always thirsty for knowledge and self-improvement, I appreciated studying theology, religious doctrine, historical figures as the saints and philosophy.
Because I was so very young (so I was told) I went to teach English in Marieville. The real fact which I learned later, was not my age but the fact that they needed English teachers. Those six months of teaching delayed my profession by six months. Before the final six months of preparation for my vows, there was the customary “practice teaching” done in one of the missions. For this I went to St. Hugues to teach English again.
What did I enjoy about the Novitiate? I loved learning so this part fulfilled me. We also had regular singing practices to prepare for the masses and other celebrations. I have, to this day, retained my love of Gregorian chant. My dad didn’t really believe I would stay and would often wonder when I would return home. At my formal profession of vows in 1952, I took the religious name of Sister Maria de la Passion. I never did like that name but my choices were limited. In 1957 we reverted to our family names. I loved the name I was given by my parents.
Mother must have had some grand heavenly intuition when she sent me a book entitled, “The Catholic Teacher’s Companion.” This book was to be the foundation of my teaching career. For years it was my constant companion. Later I was also inspired by Father Flanigan’s philosophy about children when he started Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska. Later Orian and I visited Omaha on our way to Nashville. That stopover was the highlight of my trip. I always believed that the key to my success as a teacher was to love my students sincerely and to remain true to myself. And my students responded in kind.
In 1952 I returned West to begin my teaching career. I was stationed in Laurier, Manitoba teaching all the subjects to Grades 3 and 4. After three years I went to The Pas, Manitoba to teach Grades 5 and 6. From there I attended Teachers College in Winnipeg. I then taught Grades 7 and 8 in Spiritwood Separate School. Then I taught Grade 7 at St. Mark’s School in Prince Albert, next Grades 7 and 8 in Green Lake. I then taught specialized subjects in Grades 7, 8, 9 and 10 in Vawn. I went back to Laurier for Grades 9 and 10, then went to the Academy in Prince Albert to teach social studies, religion and English to the five grade 9 classes.
During my stay at the Academy, I became friends with Orian Vallée. I always admired him and respected his fine judgment. The both of us in 1973. It happened when he was having coffee in the staff room. I needed a band aid for one of my students so I hastened to the staff room for it. As I was standing at the First Aid Kit, he came behind me and touched me. A bolt of lightning struck me.
I took some time off from teaching in 1973 to work for Core Services at North Park Centre in Prince Albert. This was a government agency to provide services to the mentally handicapped. They reminded me of the real values in life – respect for the person regardless of intelligence, color, size, personality, physical appearance and degree of skills. In 1975, I transferred to Swift Current to the same Department of Social Services.
I left the sisterhood in 1975, a very difficult choice after twenty-six years. One of my friends recounted the pain of her divorce. As she was talking, it struck me that leaving the sisterhood felt exactly like that. I concluded then that the pain suffered is equal to the degree of one’s personal commitment.
In 1976 I decided to return to teaching. I took the position of French teacher for Grades 7 to 12 in Wadena. Later I taught social studies, art, English, health, drama until I retired in 1989. I taught for a total of thirty-four and a half years.
In 1977 I received a scholarship to attend a course in France at Quimper, Brittany. I seized the opportunity to visit Domessin, Savoie, and visit the village and the house where Dad was born. The couple living there received me as if I was their daughter. The house was built of stone and was very dark inside. My second cousins, the Bellemins, drove me around to see the sights of Savoie. I visited its capital, Chambéry, and drove in the Alps which form a part of the physical landscape of Savoie.
In the summer of 1978 Orian and I attended Spanish cultural classes in Saltillo, Mexico, a non-tourist city located in the north central part of the country. We rubbed shoulders with the fantastic locals. We spent a weekend in Mexico City where we heard the mariachis, visited the pyramids at Teotihuacan and several other city sites.
Orian and I were married in Wadena in 1980 on June 3. I was 48 and he was 69. We are happy. I appreciate having been made welcome into his family. They all adore him.
Together we travelled to the Maritimes, BC, Ontario and Quebec many times, to the Yukon, to Alaska on a cruise ship, to the Black Hills twice, to Mexico, to Las Vegas, to California where we saw the Rose Bowl Parade, to Nashville and Branson, to Yellowstone and to Yellowknife.
I always wanted to play piano when I was growing up, but we didn’t have the money. It was only in 1986 that I finally took lessons at the age of 54. Yes, you can teach old dogs new tricks.
Throughout my teaching career, I would spend my summers and spare moments studying for university degrees. I hold a Professional Teacher’s Certificate for both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, a Bachelor’s degree in Arts from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and a Bachelor’s degree in Education with a major in History and a minor in Political Science from both the University of Manitoba and of Saskatchewan.
After my retirement, I took flying instructions with Mitchenson’s Flying Service in Saskatoon and loved every moment of both the flying practice and the ground school. However, I didn’t have the guts to solo. Nevertheless, I don’t regret the time and money I invested in this experience. It just wasn’t meant for me.
In 1994 we sold our house in Wadena and took up residence in Saskatoon. I love the city, its people and all its huge banquet of culture, enjoyment, classes, services, learning. We live in the Co-operative, Hector Trout Manor. We are involved in its many activities. Its residents are friendly, proud and open-minded. Our floor is famous for planning innovative evenings. I also am the editor of Kibbles ‘n Bits, our monthly newsletter.
I joined the St. Anne’s Catholic Church Choir and we have the best director and wonderful choir members. For many years, Toastmasters International was instrumental in helping me develop my leadership qualities, my self-esteem and my speaking abilities. I also love working on my computer, especially doing genealogies and receiving e-mail from family, friends and new acquaintances.
In 1995, Orian and I celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary by taking a hot air balloon ride over our beautiful city. We took off from Kinsmen Park by the river and floated with the wind towards the south. We stayed up for two hours. Our pilot, who was from New Zealand, requested permission to land in a farmer’s field. We landed in a cow pasture. From there the crew packed up the entire equipment – balloon and basket – to fit in the back of the van which had followed us on the ground throughout our flight. On the way back to the city we stopped on the shoulder of the highway and there, the pilot treated us with champagne, cheese, cold cuts, grapes and crackers. What style!
In 1997 I began doing serious work in genealogical research on four families: Anctil, Gentil Perret, Vallée and Casavant. This has been the highlight of my retirement years. I am so proud of my ancestry and of all the cousins and friends I have made during these projects. My dream is to return to Savoie, France, and get acquainted with my French connection on my Dad’s side.
As it was in the beginning, as it always was during my life, as it continues to be, so I continue to learn and grow in my senior years. Every day I discover more reasons to express my gratitude towards God. I am healthy, alive, well in mind and soul. May it continue until I rejoin my loved ones and all the ancestors I have met while researching for my family genealogies. We don’t know what the future has in store for us. I am looking forward to a continued exciting life.