During “2020 Year of the Nurse” we remember the life of Blanche Thibodeau Cyr “Tante Blanche”

“Always look for the helpers,” his mother told him.“There’s always someone who is trying to help.”- Quote from Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers 1928-2003).

MADAWASKA, Maine-  Nurses are historically among the helpers. This blog is a thank you to all health care workers who are serving and caring for our communities during the rapid spread of the 2020,  coronavirus pandemic.

Tante Blanche

Marguerite “Tante” Blanche Thibodeau Cyr in Madawaska territory.

Along with Maine2020 history, recognizing the 23rd state’s entry into the Union, the year is also designated by the World Health Organization as being “the year of the nurse”.  This special designation is a tribute to the bicentennial birthday of the British heroine, Florence Nightingale. She was the founder of professional nursing, born in 1820.

In Maine’s community nursing history, one of the colonial women of courage who set a brave example for how to respond to a public health crises was Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, (wife of Joseph Cyr), better known to her Acadian people as “Tante Blanche”.  In 1796-97, she became the colonial heroine of the “black famine”, in the Madawaska territory.  Her response to extreme food shortages during the famine endeared her as “Tante” to many of the Acadian families that struggled to survive.

She became the “Aunt of Madawaska”, in the spring of 1797, before the government came to the help of the poor colonists.

A short biography about Tante Blanche is published in “The Land In Between: The Upper St. John Valley, Prehistory to World War I” (p. 83), by Beatrice Craig and Maxime Degenais, with Lisa Ornstein and Guy Dubay.  (The history published throughout this book is important to learn about today, because many of the events described occurred before the international border was established between Maine and Canada.)

Maine Nursing History

Blanche Thibodeau Cyr is an example of one of the first heroines who served as a helper during the 1796-97 “black famine”.

An account about Tante Blanche’s  heroism is attributed to Abbe Albert, written in 1920 and published by Craig and Degenais.  “When the Madawaska settlement ran out of food, the men left to go hunting. Going from door to door, Marguerite Blanche supervised the sharing of available food and kept the community’s morale up until the hunters returned. One must wonder how she managed to redistribute food in a community that was literally eating it’s last …wheat and meat.”

Because Marguerite was related to many of the community members who lived along Grande-Rivière, she was very likely an “aunt” to most of those who she helped. At the time of her death in 1810, she was buried in the parish church, in New Brunswick, an honor normally reserved for males, and a privilege without precedent and accorded to only a few, later on. The fact that the earliest and most famous local hero is actually a heroine, reinforced the notion that women were agents of their own right in late 18th century Acadian society.

As so often happens at times of great despair, heroes and heroines emerge, and during those famine years, Marguerite Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, affectionately known as “Tante”, or  “Aunt Blanche”, would prove to be the ray of hope that the residents in Madawaska needed. It became her mission to ensure that no one went hungry, so she went to each family, to check on the status of those in the household. If they were doing fine, she would then see if they had extra to share, and would distribute that to those not so fortunate. She also took care of the sick, and often when she brought food to the hungry, she would stay to cook the meal and make sure that everyone was taken care of.

Tante Blanche embodied the spirit of sharing and community that seems to be inherent in Acadians, Franco-Americans and shared with all of us, especially today.

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 30 years.