|My Heritage Is Franco-American
By Joanne Richmond
This course was for me a journey in the same manner that Pelagie underwent to return to her homeland. I had a quest to understand what led me to shed my culture so thoroughly in my youth. Why I still mourned the lost and what needed to be done about reclaiming it. I didn't know where in the process the explanation would be revealed. I just knew that it would and it did.
Around 900,000 French Canadians left their worn depleted farm lands to gamble on a better life in New England between the years of 1840 to 1930. This immigration coincided with the great need for laborers in the textile mills in the Northeastern part of the United States. The close proximity of the province along with the easy connection by railroads made it a feasible exodus. The French-Canadians arrived as a family since these mills would employ not only men but women and children. The concept of children working was not unusual in its era. These young people were use to working long, hard hours on land that had been difficult to cultivate. Many who left Quebec went to make money while hoping to someday return to their farms. Not all people who immigrated worked in the mills; my two grandfathers had different dreams about this new promised land of New England. One grandfather came to take advantage of the need for carpenters in building tenements. The other left to avoid being drafted by Canada into World War I. He came to the United States whose soldiers had better benefits and eventually served with them in France.
The French-Canadians left an agricultural world for the industrial one where the English language and the Protestants faith were the dominating force in that society too. They took with them the idealism of "La Survivance" a strong loyalty to their French-Canadian heritage (Brault p2). This code was centered on family, the language, the faith along with their hard work ethics. It was said that "Ceux qui perdre la langue, perdre leur foi" ["If you loose your language, you will loose your faith"]. Therefore, it was very important for Franco-Americans to keep their language for the other was unthinkable.
La Survivance developed after Britain took over New France. The French Canadian population wanted to maintain their rural culture along with their language and faith, the one that the explorers and pioneers brought from France in the 17th century. Their religion was Roman Catholic and their mission was to spread their faith to this new continent. In Claude Belanger article, "The Three Pillars of Survival" he mentioned that in every little hamlet "there would be a church where they would be a cluster of French Canadians, and la survivance could be organized around it". Maintaining the language was important to keep them apart; that is away from the English speaking Protestants. This gave credence to the belief "la langue est la gardienne de la foi" [language is the guardian of the faith]. No contradiction was ever seen between the two, and none in fact existed", according to Mr. Belanger.
My two grandmothers ancestral roots came from the same northern part of the province of Quebec. They raised large families, which was the norm for French Canadians. This was a quiet retaliation measure known as "La revanche du berceau" ("The revenge of the cradle") that the French used to keep the balance of the population against the English speaking Canadians. They didn't hesitate to continue the tradition here in "Les Etats". Between the years of 1916 and 1934, my maternal grandmother had ten children while my paternal one gave birth to eight. Sister Carol Descoteaux, former President of the Notre Dame College in Manchester, referred to the mother as the lynch pin of the family, "they are at the point where everything turns" (Video). One can understand this concept for they earned this standard of respect in complying to increase the population. My family was definitely matriarchal.
My two grandmothers' led traditional lives as homemakers. Only when circumstances forced one grandmother did she find employment in the textile mills. Neither ever learned or spoke a word of English and were laid to rest with their rosaries in their hands. To them "La Survivance" was a law that was to be passed down and adhered to by their children and their grandchildren.
Since the French-Canadians immigrants were so numerous in the factory cities it was not too hard to keep "La Survivance" alive. They lived in enclaves known as "Little Canada's". Manchester largest Franco-American section was situated on the west side of the Merrimack River with the mills situated on the east bank. There were other sections in the central and east side of the city. In Quebec, the Cure or pastor was the most powerful figure at the local level(Brault p9). The nuns taught us that "Mr. Cure was God's representative and must be obeyed in all things". Everyone in my family believed his word was law. The French-Canadian clergy sent priest and nuns to help establish the French Church parish. Once that building was erected, a school shortly followed. The Franco-Americans established an infrastructure of hospitals, orphanages, credit unions, social, fraternal and mutual benefit societies and many French language newspapers". This allowed them to continue to be a French speaking Catholics in America.
"Tradition, tradition--Tradition" was a song that opened the very popular musical play "Fiddler on the Roof" in the sixties. Tevye, the main character states, "Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. ....we have traditions for everything--how to sleep, how to wear clothes.... Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do(Fiddler p3-4). Whenever, we, children would inquire as to "why" something had to be done a certain way, it always had the same reply, "because, that is the way it's always been done". There was little change in the traditions of my family for the first half of the 20th century. Holidays and holy days were celebrated and observed without variation from the set pattern year after year. From birth to grave the roles mapped out for each person to play with little deviation. Every milestone a person attained, the family gathered to share the joy or sympathize with the grief. In large family, your best friend was often your sister or cousin.
Even after the radio was introduced into the homes, singing remained a favorite activity on both sides of my family. My grandmother's old songbooks "la bonne chanson" has a slogan on the back cover "Un foyer ou l'on chante est un foyer heureux" (a home were they sing is a happy home"). There were family members who had a specialty number they sung at each gathering. One person would assume the lead in a song while the chorus was remaining members of the family. What was nice is that everybody, whether they sang like a canary or had a voice that resembled a crow, their voices were part of the joy everyone felt being together. Playing cards was another recreational activity taken place either in the church hall or at the dining room table. Du bon vieux temps was observed at weddings and wakes with the extended family members.
"Most Franco-Americans who grew up between the two world wars were raised by parents who clung to traditional ways; but sooner or later, like the children of other ethnic, they came into contact with mores and values that were different from those learned in the home"(Brault p86). This was certainly true for my parents' the second-generation. It was also true for my sister, my cousins and I who grew up in the fifties. It wasn't true for my brothers and cousins whose childhood span the years of the late fifties and early sixties.
During the Second World War, men were called to serve their country and women were requested to fill their positions on the home front. My mother and aunts were the family's "Rosie the Riveter". They worked in the Manchester and Suncook mills were French was the language spoken. When the soldiers came home, the women left their jobs to marry and for the most part other Catholic Franco-American men. French remained the primary language at home.
In the neighborhood, French-speaking people owned all the shops. These stores sold everything on a small scale that one would find in large super chains stores today. Elm Street, Manchester's downtown employed people who spoke French in the various businesses. In 1910, Bishop George Guertien became the first Franco-American Bishop of the Manchester Diocese. The immigrants living in NH escaped the fate of those living in other New England states. They avoided much of the direct ethnic conflicts that was so prevalent elsewhere between the Irish-Americans and Franco-Americans. Visiting Quebec continued with the first-generation and with many in the second-generation during this era.
During the fifties, people began to move out of the tenements into single dwellings. The neighborhoods became ethnically diverse and children began to speak English outside the home. My siblings and I, as well as most of my first cousins attended their local French Catholic Grade School. The nuns that taught me were from an order of sister from Montreal, Canada. Many of these women were French-Canadians and proud of their country. They tried very hard to instill in us a pride in our culture. There was always an undercurrent that could be felt towards the Irish-Americans whether it was at Church, school an even within the family. I had no understanding of "La Survivance" or of the Catholic Churches politics. I only knew there was a dislike of "les Irlandais" during the early years of my childhood. It actually took me a while to figure out that the Irish-Americans were Catholics believing in the same God with the same rituals as the Franco-Americans. Until now, I had never heard of the "The Flint Affair" or the underlying cause of the struggle between these two ethnic groups in the early part of the 20th century. No one I knew ever celebrated St. Patrick's Day during the fifties. In Manchester, we celebrated St. Jean-Baptiste Day with a huge parade and fireworks at the city's Athletic Field on June 24th.
As a Franco-American, I did feel inferior about our language but not our religion. The new invention called Television invaded the home in the 1950's. It was an era where children attended weekly films at their local cinema. All were in English, reinforcing that the mother tongue for American was English. Manchester's Kiwanis Club sponsored the "Girls Club" and a summer day camp" which my cousin and I attended for quite a few years. There, we mingled with girls from various ethnical groups and English was the language used. Around 1958, I decided to no longer speak French, unless there was no choice, such as being in a classroom. Preteen wants to be similar to their peers. One wanted to belong, in manner, in dress, in language and with no label.
Manchester was building a brand new high school within walking distance of my home during my 8th grade year. The building would be ready for the fall of my freshman year. I badgered my mother in allowing me to attend this new high school. It wasn't an easy issue for her, as she would have to defend this decision with other members of her large extended family. I was not the only Franco-American student choosing to attend this new school. Many of my parochial school classmates joined me in breaking a tradition of being the first members in their families to attend public high school. This was the beginning of the exodus of Franco-Americans in Manchester to withdraw from local parochial high schools in favor of public ones.
French and Latin were the only choice of languages offered in the early sixties. Lots of my former grade school chums elected to take French along with me. I was mortified when the Language Department chose to create a special class, for Franco-Americans to tend "their special needs". This did single us out as a group. During this period, I read all of Grace Metalious's books our notorious Manchester writer. There was insight gained after having to reread "No Adam in Eden" for this course. There is no doubt that the negative feelings written about our culture had reinforced my own feelings about being Franco-American. I thought we were second-class citizen to the WASP.
When everyone spoke and understood French at family gatherings, that was fine. In the sixties, just like in the video "Franco-American: We remember" suddenly in the family circle came an outsider. Our newest family member didn't speak French and wasn't Catholic. Politeness required people to accommodate and the English language replaced the spoken French one at family gathering. "Ceux qui perde la langue".....
The turbulent sixties changed a lot of traditions, customs and a way of life. In the Catholic Church there was the impact of Vatican II. One of the mandates was that "mass be celebrated in the vernacular language". For us, it was French. As the decade progress a large segment of children who had not attended our French parochial school, their language was English. Our Church began celebrating mass in both languages. "Ceux qui perde la langue".....
Another mandate was for friendlier and cooperation with non-Roman Churches. More mixed marriages were occurring within the family and the Churches seem to acquire a more tolerant attitude. It was an era that saw many changes in this country, the women's movement, civil rights, and the war. Many of the old values were being discarded and replaced. I had become very disillusion with the Catholic Church and no book expressed my own feelings better at the time than a book by Father James Kavanaugh, "A Modern Priest Looks At His Outdated Church". His philosophy matched my own. "Ceux qui perdre la langue, perdre leur foi". For me, this became a reality.
"Anthropologists note that French Canadians developed kinship recognition to a high degree; in other words, they were able to identify many relatives, often up to third cousins"(Brault p13). This is quite true in my family, we know our parents cousins, their children and then their children. Visiting relatives who lived in Quebec had come to a halt with the deaths of the first-generation in my family.
Change happens slowly, at first you don't even notice that traditions and customs that kept us glued as a culture were eroding away. We became a mobile family with new mores and interest. If anyone visited Quebec it was as a tourist not a family member. My first trip to Quebec coincided with Expo 67 held in Montreal. It was here that the special ambiance of Quebec took root while learning that speaking French was an asset not a liability that I had perceived it to be. I kept alive the songs learned in childhood singing them when alone. It came as a real shock upon divorcing to realize that I had raised two sons who were clearly just Americans. They knew nothing of my culture, my language or even my people. What I tried so hard to shed had now become my biggest remorse. I learned that it wasn't just my children for my siblings and cousins; their children fared no differently. One of my cousins' lamented on "our closeness even with infrequent gatherings. The tragedy that our children would never know this special relationships we shared growing up as part of the Franco-American community".
In 1999, I received an email via the genealogy list server by a descendant of my mother's family regarding a web page he found interesting.
Resent-Date: Fri, 19 Feb 1999 06:41:57 -0800 (PST) From: email@example.com
(Andy & Ann Laberge) Old-To: LABERGE-L@rootsweb.com
I don't know how long this site has been on line but I like it. The stories and articles I read were real good, some nice links also.
Thought I would share it with you.
Since that day, I began monitoring the web page until I finally had the courage to join the FAW course. It has given me back pride in my Franco-American roots. In my opinion, "La Survivance" remains the marvelous code that it has always been: family, the language, the faith along with their hard work ethics still remains. Perhaps not in the manner of the 19th and early 20th centuries but the important elements still remains. For me the essence of the ideology didn't die but went into hibernation. For in my souls there still remained the lingering soft-murmurs of my French heritage. Knowing the history goes along way in understand how Franco-American's evolved in New England. The faith; though I have long since drop the hostility felt in the sixties, nothing is more soothing today than to sit quietly in a pew in one of Notre Dame Churches.
A Manchester author and educator, Robert B. Perreault worries that his culture is being diluted in the American melting pot; "With every generation you are putting a little more English water in our French wine, he warns". Josee Vachon, a performer sings "The spirit never dies, our culture will survive" (Hammond). There is a great movement to regain the ethnic pride that once belonged to our people in bilingual publications. The FAROG (Franco-American Opportunity Group) was established at the University of Maine at Orono publishes "Le Forum" a bilingual journal publishing article, essays, poems and interesting regional materials (Braugh p182). "Moe pi toe", an online literary celebration focusing on Franco-American women. There are festivals that bring awareness of the culture. La survivance lives' on with the women who continue to promote this rich culture through writing, painting, music, singing, dancing or just speaking about it.
For me, I feel the way Pelagie felt when she finally came home, I have my answers. I am very proud to be a Franco-American woman.
Merci beaucoup, for guiding me on this journey and teaching me
about the great women in my own rich culture.
Belanger, Damien-Claude, "Quebec History: French Canadian Emigration to the United States" Marianopolis College. 23 August 2000 http://www2.marianopolis.edu/quebechistory/readings/leaving.htm
Belanger, Damien-Claude, "Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History:
"Rapatriement" Marianopolis College. 23 August 2000
Belanger, Damien-Claude, "Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History:
"The Three Pillars of Survival" Marianopolis College. 23 August 2000
Brault, Gerard J., The French-Canadian Heritage in New England University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, (1986)
Franco Americans: We Remember. Videocassette. New Hampshire Public Television, Durham, NH, (1999).
Fiddler on the Roof based on Sholom Aleichem's Stories, Pocket Books New York, (1966)
Hammond, Pat. (1996, October 27) "The French Connection: Is New
Hampshire Losing a Culture?". New Hampshire Sunday News (Manchester, NH).