FORT KENT, Maine — Tom Ouellette was up long before daybreak Easter to take part in a very private, very spiritual St. John Valley Catholic tradition.
Empty plastic jug in hand, Ouellette walked from his house the 500 or so feet to nearby Dempsey Brook just as the sky was turning pink.
Picking his way down to the softly gurgling stream, he hunkered down and let the cold l’eau de Paques or “Easter water” flow into the container.
“This is something my dad used to do every Easter,” Ouellette said. “I’ve done it quite a bit [and] most people in the Valley do it that still believe in it.”
What they believe in, according to the local tradition, is the purity, healing and restorative powers of any water collected from any moving brook, stream or river in the hours leading up to sunrise on Easter.
“You have to get the water before the sun rises,” said Lise Pelletier, director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. “Because of Jesus’ Resurrection, this is considered to be holy water with the power to cure.”
George Caron of Fort Kent has the collection time narrowed down further.
“It really should be collected at 3 a.m.,” he said. “That’s when Jesus rose and washed off his garments, [and] the water will heal people who believe in it.”
This year Caron’s wife, Nancy Caron, collected the family’s Easter water, but he remembers his father walking a half-mile or so to a brook and chopping through a layer of ice in search of the holy water.
“My dad did that all his life,” Caron said. “As kids, if we felt sweaty or coming down with a cold during the year we would drink a little of that water. I’m not sure if it was the water or our belief that made the cold go away.”
Ouellette and his wife, Marylyn, both recall stoppered bottles of the Easter water in their families’ refrigerators.
“Mama always had a bottle of the Easter water the whole year,” Marylyn Ouellette said. “It would keep you well and heal you.”
Depending on the need, the special water was drunk or added to bath water.
Her husband also recalled the water being used in his home as antidotes to winter colds or other ills.
“For those who had the strong faith and believed, it did help,” he said.
“People would also sprinkle it on their windows during thunderstorms to ward off the thunder,” Pelletier said.
In addition to its curative powers, the Easter water was known for its purity, as water collected before sunrise on that day is said never to lose its clarity or go bad.
“That water will stay fresh for a year,” Marylyn Ouellette said. “Some people will put a jar of Easter water in their refrigerator and open it in a year and it will not have gone bad.”
The custom seems to have been brought over from France by way of Quebec, according to local historian Chad Pelletier.
“My grandfather would go up the mountain behind our house to a spring and get the Easter water,” Pelletier said. “My grandmother would serve it at Easter brunch; I remember she always had little juice glasses of it out for us.”
This year Ouellette added a new twist to the tradition.
Setting down his freshly collected container of Easter water, he tore a small piece of bark off a white birch next to the stream.
According to legend, Ouellette said, bark collected with Easter water brings “bonheur,” or good luck and bliss for the rest of the year.
“I heard about this yesterday on French-speaking radio,” he said. “Take enough to keep some in your pocket and to give to your friends so they can have good luck all year, too.”
These are traditions Ouellette would love to pass along to his grandchildren, as he does not see many of the younger generation continuing the practice.
“It’s a part of our faith I’d like to share with them,” he said.