Calling all flappers and Francophiles! The Alliance Française de Denver will celebrate its 120th anniversary gala Sept. 9 at the Denver Art Museum with a “Great Gatsby”-themed celebration to benefit the group’s scholarship fund and building improvements.
Featuring a three-course dinner, entertainment and a silent auction, the festivities kick off at 6 p.m. for VIP ticket holders ($180) and 7 p.m. for general admission attendees ($150). The after party starts at 9 p.m. ($35). Special guests are slated to include Gov. John Hickenlooper, Frieda Sanidas, former honorary consul of France, and Jeffrey Richards, current honorary consul of France.
We spoke with Melanie Soubra, who helps plans events for the Alliance Française de Denver, to get an idea of what this celebration means to the nonprofit organization.
How does it feel to be celebrating 120 years?
It is heartwarming to know the interest in the French language and culture in Colorado has such a long history.
The Alliance Française inspires the study of French cultures. Why was Denver chosen as a chapter location?
France and Colorado had strong ties at the end of the 19th century when a lot of French people settled in the West to seek fortune. For the Alliance Francaise, it all started on Aug. 23, 1897, when the honorary consul of France, Jean Mignolet, together with prominent Francophile figures of the Denver community, including Molly Brown, started the AFD. Mignolet arrived in New York from Begium in 1874. In 1884, he moved to Lake City, Colo. Four years later, he moved to Denver and joined a group of French and Belgian musicians. In 1896, after he was appointed honorary French consul for Denver, he contacted AF France founder Pierre Fonsin on how to establish a branch in Denver. Mignolet formed a board, recruited some members, set up headquarters in the McPhee building, and within the first year, had 800 students enrolled for French lessons. Mignolet passed away at the age of 77, but left an everlasting impression and legacy, devoting so much of his time and effort to French and Belgian affairs. Because of monsieur Mignolet, Alliance Française de Denver is celebrating its 120th anniversary.
What makes the Alliance Française de Denver different from other nonprofit organizations in the area?
It offers educational, artistic, cultural and scientific programs all in one organization. Many are low-fee or no-fee. We serve all ages and all backgrounds and are proud to say that we are one of the oldest nonprofits in the area.
How has the Denver chapter changed over the years?
It has grown incredibly, and now serves both the Francophile and francophone audience. We went from having meetings in houses, to owning our own school and resource center to welcoming an ever growing community of Francophiles (1,500 today).
Today, we hold classes, art shows, theatrical productions, petanque competitions, book clubs and a children’s summer day camp. In addition, we offer our space to other nonprofits to use for meetings, classes and events.
Do you have a favorite memory from working with the group?
The AFD has such a colorful past, it is difficult for us to pick only one memory … But if we have to choose one, it would certainly be the incredible generosity of Dr. Thomas and Jean Sutherland, without whom we would not own our Alliance building today. Dr. Sutherland was held hostage in Lebanon in the ’80s along with French journalist Jean-Paul Kaufman, and speaking French was what helped him survive at that time. We were truly blessed when Dr. Sutherland helped us in 2003, and our entire community was devastated to hear his passing away last year in Fort Collins.
The Alliance Française de Denver offers several classes. Can you tell us more about what’s available?
The Alliance Française can take you from beginner to advanced with our educational programming all around Colorado: Denver, Centennial, Boulder and Evergreen. We offer many classes which vary in structure, topic, level, duration and price. To start, we offer one week of intensives for beginners, intermediate and advance levels to refresh and brush up on learned skills. Our 11-week programming includes foundation courses, conversation classes and children’s courses (ages 1-13). Each term, we offer, five-week and six-week workshops to help you discover more about French culture and language. Past workshops have covered pronunciation, grammar, cinema, regions of France, literature, music and food. One of our most popular workshops, French for Travelers, is targeted at absolute beginners and teaches you the necessary vocabulary, phrases and pronunciation to travel abroad. Lastly, we offer a Fast Track route to learn French in a short period of time. One can cover beginner or intermediate level French in an entire semester. Our fall term starts on Sept. 25.
What do you want people to know about The Alliance Française de Denver?
American people often think that our organization only serves French people and French nationals usually think we only serve Americans. Both statements are wrong since we have activities for all: all ages, all interests, all backgrounds and origins. Ranging from babies to adults, we are the center for all things French in Colorado—whether you are a French speaker or not.
What are you most excited about for the gala?
The venue, the food, the entertainment and our speakers who hold the Alliance close to their hearts. It will definitely be a night to remember.