La Survivance: Franco-American Culture in the Merrimack Valley
The Merrimack River flows through downtown Haverhill, at times veering dangerously close to buildings and parked cars. Wide and swift, the river’s vast hydropower drew factory owners to the city in the 19th century, much as it lured them to its industrial-age Merrimack Valley sisters, Lowell, Lawrence, Nashua and Manchester. [Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of mvm.]
As in other parts of New England where manufacturing flourished, many of those who came to work in the Valley’s hulking red-brick mills were Quebecois. Farmers and laborers, they emigrated from Canada by the thousands from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, seeking to improve their fortunes. They built schools and churches, launched businesses and credit unions, newspapers and social clubs, transforming entire neighborhoods into “Little Canadas,” where French was spoken in homes and on the streets.
My ancestors were among those Quebecois immigrants. My great-great-grandparents were married in Haverhill in 1891. My great-grandmother was born in a house on Hilldale Avenue there. Like thousands of other Franco-American families in New England, mine was French-speaking well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, by the time this fifth-generation Franco-American and many others of my age group came along, our ethnic identities had been largely wiped clean by the forces of Americanization. Many of us had never heard of the Feast of St. Jean-Baptiste or eaten a tourtiere. And with rare exception, there were few people left to tell us from where or from whom we’d come.
Que S’est-il Passé? What Ever Happened to the French?
For generations, Franco-Americans were notorious for resisting assimilation into American society. They lived in close-knit neighborhoods and patronized Franco-owned businesses. As conservative Catholics, many equated the French language with their religion and feared that losing it would result in their children losing their faith. Often discriminated against, they established their own credit unions in order to open bank accounts and acquire loans, largely avoiding contact with mainstream society.
In a 1942 letter to then-Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote about the Franco-American immigrants living in his boyhood summer home of New Bedford, saying,“I can still remember that the old generation shook their heads and used to say, ‘this is a new element which will never be assimilated. We are assimilating the Irish but these Quebec people won’t even speak English. Their bodies are here but their hearts and minds are in Quebec.’ ”
It might have taken the Franco-Americans a few generations longer than other immigrants of the day, but the same ambition that led them to New England’s factories eventually convinced many that speaking French was a hindrance to their upward mobility. Some even did away with their cultural traditions, Anglicizing the spelling and/or pronunciations of their names.
Adrien Bisson, a photographer and Westford resident, is a fourth-generation Franco-American who experienced this firsthand. “Three of my grandparents were from Quebec and the fourth was born in Berlin, N.H., and was very much a francophone,” he says. “My father was bilingual, but my parents were very concerned that the Catholic school I would be going to would have francophone nuns, because they didn’t want me to have an accent.”
Through the decades, the closing of French churches, social clubs and parochial schools, and the gradual loss of Franco neighborhoods, further chipped away at the culture in the Merrimack Valley and elsewhere.
Les Survivants: The Guardians of Franco-American Culture
Not all of the Merrimack Valley’s Franco-Americans were so quick to let go of their culture. Many worked tirelessly to preserve and celebrate what remained of it. Because of them, the region’s Franco-American heritage has persevered in some ways, albeit mostly out of view of the general population.
Retired French teacher and Lowell resident Roger Lacerte owns La Librairie Populaire, a French language bookstore on Orange Street in Manchester, N.H. Lacerte, who continues to work as a French translator and as the host of a French language radio program on Manchester’s WFEA, opened the store in 1962 to serve the city’s Franco population, which remains the Merrimack Valley’s largest and best preserved.
“We sell everything from books from Quebec and France to textbooks and French translations of American classics,” Lacerte says. “There are still people in Manchester who speak French, though many of our customers now come from French-speaking countries other than Canada.”
In 1970, after urban renewal claimed most of Lowell’s Little Canada, the Franco-American Day Committee was formed by members of the community who were concerned that the loss of their neighborhoods would also mean losing their culture and traditions. The committee created Lowell’s annual Franco-American Festival Week, which is held in late June to coincide with St. Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec’s national holiday on June 24. Festival events include a French-language Mass in honor of the saint, a traditional ham and bean supper, and live Quebecois music.
Kevin Roy, a fourth-generation Franco-American from Billerica, has been the Franco-American Day Committee’s president since 2011. At 45, Roy is the committee’s youngest member. He is one of only three committee presidents who doesn’t speak French.
“The average age [of committee members] is in the 70s,” Roy says. “We’re struggling to keep the group alive, to find ways to interest younger people and make it new again. We need to think beyond language and history and think about what makes us French.”
Founded in 1990, the Franco-American Centre, on the campus of St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., was created to promote French heritage in the Merrimack Valley. It offers an array of cultural events throughout the year, but its main mission is to teach and preserve the French language. The center offers a number of French classes for kids and adults, as well as the popular Prêt-à-parler, an informal monthly class that provides a setting for participants to drop in for casual French conversation.
John Tousignant, a businessman who specializes in U.S.-Canadian relations and a former French teacher, has been the centre’s executive director since January.
“We take language learning and make it meaningful to the community,” Tousignant says. “Our students are our future.”
The diverse student population at Ste Jeanne d’Arc School — one of three remaining French parochial grammar schools in Lowell — includes few Francos these days. Keeping true to its origins, however, the school remains a center of French culture in the city.
“We’re the only school that offers a French language program K through eight,” says Monique Letendre, Jeanne d’Arc’s assistant principal. “One of the French traditions that’s alive and well here is Mardi Gras. The kids get to dress up in crazy costumes and eat candy all day.”
L’Avenir: The Future of Franco-American Ethnic Identity
The declining participation of an aging Franco population in cultural events, and the fact that most Franco cultural institutions remain isolated from one another, raises questions about the future of the culture and creates uncertainties about the ethnic identities of future generations.
“We aren’t known to ourselves, or to others,” says Robert Perreault of Manchester, N.H., an author, French professor at St. Anselm College, and native French speaker. “We’re not French. We’re not Canadian. We are our own people. We can have a cultural identity if we’re willing to do something about it.”
Paul Marion, executive director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Arts & Ideas, an author and publisher and a fourth-generation Franco-American, has dedicated much of his career to maintaining and promoting Franco culture, most notably the writings of the Valley’s most legendary Franco-American, Jack Kerouac.
“We don’t live the way my parents did,” Marion says. “If we want [Franco culture] to be around for our kids, we have to make it our business to celebrate it. … We must make an attempt to form a new cultural identity where we can be ‘French-Canadian Americans,’ because we’re different from our ancestors. We have to make our culture fit into contemporary life.”
Some Franco-Americans have reconnected with their heritage by acknowledging Quebec as a cultural homeland. Bisson, the photographer, learned French in his 40s as a way to rediscover his heritage. He visited Quebec twice as part of a French language immersion program. “I went to Quebec for two weeks each time and took classes. … It really was a great experience … the Quebec our grandparents remembered is not today’s Quebec. The two cities [Montreal and Quebec City] are very cosmopolitan, cultural and hip.”
Marion also points to Quebec as a way for younger Francos to get back in touch with their heritage. “We’re the ones that left,” he says. “You can’t go back in time, but you can reconnect with contemporary culture. … Look in the Montreal phone book and we have the same names. We’re all related. You can’t get any better than that.”
Others believe that the best way to revive Franco culture is to replace the centers of social and cultural life that were lost with the closing of French churches, schools and clubs. Carole Salmon, a native of France who teaches French studies at UMass Lowell, has been researching New England’s Franco-Americans for several years.
“We need to replace the cultural centers,” Salmon says, pointing out that Massachusetts is the only New England state that lacks a Franco-American heritage center. “Perhaps Lowell is the place to do this,” she says, noting that one of the city’s shuttered French churches might make an ideal location, considering that many of them were built with donations derived from Franco laborers’ wages. “It’s something to reach for in the future.”
La Librairie Populaire
St. Anselm College
Franco-American Festival Week
Ste. Jeanne d’Arc School
Authors Note: Although they are not quoted in this article, thanks to David Vermette, Henri Marchand and the Richelieu Club of Lowell for their kindness, support and willingness to share information.