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Belgian Heritage Center - Brussels, Wisconsin

Story published in May 2017  | Interview conducted in August 2016

Did you know that some parts of Wisconsin still hang on to their Belgian Heritage? In the Door Peninsula, many towns are named after Belgian cities! SignMyCar! went to Brussels, WI in August 2016 to find out more! This is the second installment in our series “Wisconsin Walloons”. Meet Sandy Orsted, treasurer at the Belgian Heritage Center. She will tell you all about how an upsetting event turned out to be a real wake call for Belgian Community. They are now organizing to professionally preserve their Walloon heritage and save their language!

 

This interview is available with French and Dutch Caption thanks to our volunteer translators! We can’t thank them enough!

French captions by Anne Mouyart-Krebs.

Dutch captions by Joe Binard, MD FRCSC.

Can you tell us more, Sandy, about your Belgian Heritage?

Sandy: There is always been in the community an emphasis on heritage that never dissipated from the original immigrants. They always hung on to their language and traditions. Like my dad. His Belgian Heritage was very important to him. He got that from his parents and grandparents. It has always been kind of handed down. And you never noticed the same kind of emphasis from other ethnic groups in the area.

In the 1900’s, being Walloon was seen as a negative thing in the US. Why?

Sandy: A lot of families were extended families. It was mum and dad, grandma, grandpa and the kids. The older people didn't speak English. So the kids did not learn English until they went to school. That is what happened with my dad. He didn't speak English until he went to school because he had his grandparents living in the house. That was a fairly common thing. What would happen is that they would go to school with the other kids who did speak English. Imagine trying to read and write in a language you have never spoken. They are just way behind the other students. They didn't always feel good about themselves. The teachers did not want them speaking Walloon, they could not understand what they were saying. I think there was that connotation of it being a negative thing at that time. Or a least people were made to feel that they were somehow "backwards" - for a lack of a better word - because they were speaking that language. There is a lot that made people feel like that. But once they got out of school, that was the language they spoke. Until my dad died, Walloon was his first language when he was speaking to any of his relatives.

You're the 5th generation American… What do you know about your ancestors?

Sandy: Séraphine Lampereur was her name. She walked from Namur, WI all the way down to Menasha, WI (68 miles / 107km) to make the homesteading claim for the land my family started on. Her story is that she had a sandwich for the whole day. I can't even image this! You are walking that distance with 50lbs (25kg) of wheat, and you have a sandwich for the whole day! She was challenged by wolves and she had to throw them her sandwich in order to scare them off and then she had nothing to eat for the day! I can't even image this! It is fascinating to think about what their lives were like! That is why I am so happy I got involved in the BHC because now you start seeing it documented, you start hearing other stories, you start hearing that  because it is not just her, a lot of the women in our communities have similar stories! It makes you think “Wow, I come from some hardy stock!” People, women especially, that were tough!

How did the Belgian Heritage Center start?

Sandy: In 2000, Saint Mary of the Snow's Church was decommissioned by the Catholic diocese. And that was a major event because church is the social connector of our community: there is no separating church, family and community. It is all one thing for most of us. They closed the church, with the idea that the Norbertines - who had founded that church - would take over the church and transform it into a museum and that the church would stay. But in 2010, the church had sat empty for 10 years, and was becoming a drain on the resources of the local parish so they were going to tear it down!

That got the community engaged to saving our church but also decide what to do with the building! We decided to preserve our heritage in a professional manner, in a professionally curated exhibit. And we have said many times, as much as we were upset about the idea that they might demolish the church, it was actually a good thing! Had we waited much longer to get started on this, some of our old community members would not be around to ask questions about the history anymore. They are still plenty of Walloon speakers, who can tell the language, they are still people who can identify the photos, and know the stories. But had we waited another 10 years, how much of that is going to be lost?

What are the missions of the Belgian Heritage Center?

Sandy: The primary mission is to preserve the Belgian culture and tell the stories of the original settlers. We have two components. One is the traditions: we do a waffle breakfast every year, we do a booyah lunch every year, and kermesses. Other annual tradition or community type involvements. And then the second part is telling the story of the settlers. But also promoting it so future generations of Belgians can be proud of their heritage because they have something to refer to. That is our professionally developed exhibit that we are just getting starting on right now.

 

Can you tell me more about this interactive exhibit?

The back of the church is the “static exhibit". The walls have been built with placeholders for at least three interactive digital stations. What we want to do is take the Belgian settlement map, and find maybe 5-10 families that we can trace from the landownership today to the original settlers. What is their story? What is their land? Who is there now? When did they get here? And what we would like to show is that they are all kinds of place on the map where we can trade our history all the way back to the original immigrants.

What is the reception from younger generations to your missions ?

I don't think we have seen that yet. I mean I am 56. And I am the young one! It is a nice feeling for me, but it says an awful lot when you look at all our volunteers,you don't seen many people under 50. How do we change that? What do we do to make this more appealing for the younger generations? How do we get to the school? Can we develop a curriculum, a day camp, where kids come in and stay for a day to learn about the language, the history, the food? That is an outreach effort that we need to make once we have something that is a little bit more tangible to support that learning. Because without that it dies. I think there will be interest by parents and grandparents that would be interested to send their kids and tell the stories more effectively themselves: if they can show them visually and use some of those interactive tools we are building and that Kelly and his team are working on (listen to the first episode for more info). All of those are going to be way more appealing than just stories. Stories are great but they need a little bit more curating.

Where can people find out more about the Belgian Heritage Foundation?

Our website is pretty good. It is www.BelgianHeritageCenter.org. We have a homepage that is talking about events and we try to keep that pretty current with what is going on. We also have a Facebook page where we promote events and other cultural things. If anybody is interested in visiting, we will be opening again starting in the middle of May 2017 at least on weekends. We will probably open more depending on what the traffic is like.

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