Change. It can be a frightening notion, especially in a small community like Arnaudville, where for decades change has been slow in coming. By Patrick Flanagan

Friday, March 1, 2013

Photo by Robin May
Mavis Fruge at the vacant St. Luke's Hospital in Arnaudville.

For this small community of about 1,500, the last four years have been rife with change, and the majority of residents agree that change has been good.

The problem, however, is that the small group opposing Arnaudville’s renaissance — as some call it — mostly consist of elected or appointed officials, who over the last two years have put up a hard-fought resistance to an idea to transform the vacant St. Luke’s Hospital into the headquarters for a multi-faceted French immersion program. Another issue has been that the fate of the facility will ultimately be decided by two governing bodies — the St. Landry and St. Martin parish councils.

Mavis Fruge is a life-long resident of Arnaudville. She’s also one of the main forces behind the push to reconstitute the old St. Luke Hospital, a building that has been vacant for four years, into a French Immersion campus.

For Fruge, turning Arnaudville into a mecca for French Immersion just makes sense.

“Arnaudville is still so small, and that’s probably why we still have so many French speakers here,” says Fruge. “Our priest, our deacon, five of our seven post office workers, our police officer, our pharmacist, they all speak French. Our population is close to 1,500, and it’s safe to say at least 60 percent are French speakers.”

Bill Fontenot

And as witnessed by the growing stack of support letters sent to the St. Landry and St. Martin parish councils, Fruge is not alone in her thinking.

Among the biggest backers for the program are officials from the French Consulate in New Orleans and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, as well as numerous college professors, state legislators and a growing list of residents from St. Landry and St. Martin parishes.
In fact, LSU, Tulane and UL Lafayette have all pledged resources and support for the program.

Amanda LaFleur

Amanda LaFleur, coordinator of Cajun studies at LSU, says a successful language immersion program can’t just happen anywhere. LaFleur, speaking during the Feb. 19 meeting of the St. Landry Parish Council, pledged LSU’s support for creating a program in Arnaudville.

“When we first heard of this project we jumped on it,” LaFleur told the hesitant council. “For an immersion program to be successful, you need a small place where the whole community is vested in creating the right atmosphere, and Arnaudville is a place where we can immerse people in a Francophone atmosphere. It’s like the Shangri-La of French immersion.”

Despite LSU’s commitment, which isn’t the only one, a small contingent of parish officials is against using the vacant hospital for the immersion program. That resistance, says St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot, has primarily come from council members Pam Gautreau, Alvin Stelly and Wayne Ardoin.

Pam Gautreau

“This program would be such a great business for our parish; it’s the business of our people,” Fontenot tells IND Monthly. “Nobody would pay any more in taxes. All we’re looking to do is put this asset back into service for our community. This opposition is basically just a phantom opposition consisting of a few small-minded citizens.”

Another roadblock to the immersion program has been the First Hospital Service District of St. Martin and St. Landry Parishes, a body created in 1963 to oversee the now-vacant health care facility in Arnaudville. Yet, since the hospital’s closure four years ago, the board slipped under the radar. Despite not publishing its minutes since 1993, the board was technically still active, and was even sitting on a $1.6 million fund balance left over from a now-expired millage tax.

“The hospital board is resisting this project, and we’re not really sure why,” says Fontenot.

Alvin Stelly

A partial reason for their resistance was made clear during the St. Landry Parish Council’s meeting on Feb. 19, when hospital board President Kenneth Quebedeaux said a company specializing in behavioral and mental health was interested in the facility.
“We refuse to be used as pawns in someone else’s game,” Quebedeaux told the council. “If we’re not interfered with, we will get a tenant in that building.”

Quebedeaux’s plan is unlikely now, as the St. Landry council voted during the Feb. 19 meeting to disband the hospital board. Because it’s a two-parish board, the St. Martin Parish Council also must vote to disband. If and when that council will follow St. Landry’s lead is up in the air. IND Monthly reached out to St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier for a comment on the issue, but has yet to hear back.

Wayne Ardoin

“We don’t want to own the building; we’re not looking for work,” says Fruge. “You ask what’s in it for me? The satisfaction of knowing I have made an effort for the survival of our Cajun-Creole cultures. Regardless of what St. Martin Parish decides, we’re starting the program in March for 10 legislators. It will just be on a smaller scale than if we were able to use the hospital.”

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