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What If You Went to a Family Reunion and 1,400 Showed Up? : Roots: The Dionne family has become so large that it's also an association; family researchers say virtually every Dionne in North America descends from Antoine Dionne, who came to Quebec from France in 1663.

November 22, 1990|E.J. DIONNE | WASHINGTON POST

RIVIERE-DU-LOUP, Quebec — This is a story about a family reunion in Quebec where 1,400 people showed up.

What sort of family would have 1,400 people show up at a reunion? Mine. The kind of family that's not so much a family as a political machine. In 1986, some folks in Quebec, where the family hails from, organized a group called L'Association les Dionne D'Amerique Inc. I got a mailing from them a few years back and decided: At last, a special interest group I can support unreservedly.

So please do not expect a fair-minded, objective account. I will be utterly dispassionate about Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, vegetarians and beef ranchers. But we're talking here about my roots. Did you ask Alex Haley to be objective?

The Dionne Assn. most certainly isn't, but it's terribly serious about genealogy, heritage and all that. It even puts out a quarterly journal called La Voix des Dionne that includes articles with titles such as: "Jean Dionne, Known as Sanssoucy, Was He the Father of Antoine?"

Don't scoff. In the course of the weekend reunion, I learned that questions like that are not trivial. If the Dionne Assn. has an ideology, it might be called Antoinism. The idea is that virtually every Dionne in North America descends from the same ancestor, Antoine Dionne, who came to Quebec from France in 1663. That means I can finally give an answer to a question I've been asked all my life: Yes, I am related to the Dionne Quintuplets, through Antoine at least.

I also learned that Antoine and Catherine Ivory, his wife, had 12 children, but only six survived, including only one son, Jean Dionne (1670-1752). So we all descend from Jean too, and "The Great Dionne Gathering of America," held here Aug. 4 and 5, was designed as a celebration of the 320th anniversary of Jean's birth.

I was suspicious at the beginning of Antoinism, and its corollary, Jeanism. I kept thinking of some poor Dionne way back there whom we've cast into the dustbin of genealogy. But the organizers were quite convincing about all the work they'd done to establish the truth of Antoinism.

Besides, the sense of solidarity created by a common ancestor was nothing to sneer at. Never had I been to a convention where the words "we" and "us" carried quite the same meaning. When I apologized to someone I collided with in the lobby, he just gave me a broad grin. "Don't worry," he said. "We're all Dionnes here." That doesn't happen at the local Safeway.

To get all these people together, the Dionne Assn. mailed invitations to every Dionne in every phone book in North America; about 6,000 pieces of mail were sent out last winter. When I got mine, my reporter's instinct was to sense a scam. But with a $50 registration fee for the weekend, I figured there wasn't much money to be made. Besides, when a Dionne I met in the lobby found out I was a reporter, he made me promise that I wasn't there pursuing a story about "Dionnegate." I promised, so forget about the scam angle.

It turned out that this sort of reunion, while unusual, was not unprecedented for families in Quebec. Giles Dionne, president of the association, said that popular interest in genealogy and family history has grown over 15 years side-by-side with the resurgence of Quebec nationalism.

But Giles, a former official of the Quebec Ministry of Education, said the main motivation lay in "the search for identity" that seems to so preoccupy modern men and women. "We can't find our identity without returning to our roots," he said.

France Dionne, who represents this area in the Quebec National Assembly, said the Dionnes were slow to organize compared with some other large Quebec families, such as the Ouelettes and the Tremblays. She said she welcomed the Dionnes' coming of age organizationally, but didn't expect all that much political benefit herself. A shrewd vote counter, she said the Dionnes were too scattered to be all that much of a bloc.

The Dionnes came to Riviere-du-Loup from just about everywhere--from all over Quebec and Canada and from places in the United States as far away as Alaska, California and New Iberia, La. Wendy Dionne Gianotti came all the way from Milan. "For all the world, I never knew I had so many cousins," Joe Dionne, one of the American contingent, told about 200 Dionnes who had gathered for a seminar on family history. "Hello, y'all!"

All those Dionnes in one place created some problems. If your last name is Dionne and you live anywhere in the United States outside of Maine, you rarely get confused with anyone else. It's not like being a Jones or a Smith or a Sullivan. But when I arrived at the Avis counter in Quebec City, I had to sort through five separate Dionne reservations.

That was only the beginning. At the Motel Universel in Riviere-du-Loup, the center of the reunion, almost everything was done by first name, but even that didn't always help. When I went to register for the conference, there were five different Eugene Dionnes on the list, none of them me.

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