(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2012
“They have no intention of becoming Americans. They come to earn what money they can for a few years. When they have saved a modest sum they intend to return to their country. They thus form a distinctly and intentionally foreign element in our midst.”
While this might sound like the current-day rhetoric of those advocating stricter control of the southern border of the United States, it is actually from an 1885 Connecticut Bureau of Labor report deploring French Canadian movement over our northern border.
The story of French Canadians has been neglected in standard United States history largely because the timing, geography, and scope of their settlement is out of sync with the common national narratives of immigration. French Canadians didn’t come in the “first wave” of immigration to the U.S.: Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians in the mid-19th century, nor in the “second wave” of eastern and southern Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nor are they part of the story of the current “third wave” of post-1965 immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Furthermore, they are a largely regional phenomenon: The vast majority of French Canadian immigrants settled in New England.
French Canadians began coming in large numbers to New England after the Civil War. Even when the borders were all but sealed to most European groups by the national anti-immigrant legislation of the 1920s, French Canadians continued to cross over, as they were somehow exempt from that legislation. The reasons they came to New England are complex but are similar to what motivated the European exodus. In the 19th century, the French Canadian rural population was swept up by a whirlwind of forces gradually detaching it from its land. Rural Quebeçois faced the commercialization and globalization of agriculture and land development that brought a scarcity of affordable land, competition from larger producers, and fluctuations in crop prices.
French Canadians eking out a living were already moving within their home country for seasonal logging or more permanent factory work. Ultimately, their migration radii widened to include the northeastern United States.
Between 1850 and 1930 roughly 900,000 French Canadians left their homeland permanently. Many more crossed the border on a temporary basis. An explosion of textile production in many New England towns attracted struggling French Canadians. Toward the end of the 19th century they increasingly headed for southern New England, particularly Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and eastern Connecticut to work in the textile factories that were burgeoning in the area. [See “A Strike Transforms a Village,” Winter 2019-2020]
As the 1885 Connecticut Department of Labor report notes, French Canadians typically did not assimilate quickly after they arrived. The reason is largely related to the group’s sub-cultural status before they came to the U.S.
Since Britain’s conquest of Canada in 1763, the country’s French descendants lived in a nation dominated by English laws and institutions and a Protestant-based culture. They pushed back, living a defiantly sub-cultural existence. Francophone clergy promoted la survivance, an intensely nationalist philosophy stressing the importance of maintaining the French Canadian language, values, and customs along with their practice of Catholicism. Religious, social, educational, and cultural life in Francophone Canada was all organized within local parishes in which priests wielded tremendous influence. To a great extent this structure would be reproduced in the “Little Canadas” that sprung up all over New England and in many Connecticut towns such as Putnam, Willimantic, Meriden, and Waterbury.
French Canadians were the second large Catholic group to come to New England and the first to demand that they worship in their own language. Yankee Protestants, already horrified by the burgeoning of the Irish Catholic churches across the landscape, were doubly shocked that this alien religion would now be practiced in a foreign tongue. Irish American church officials were not thrilled, either, as they had just begun to soothe the mainstream Protestant population with assurances that their parishioners spoke English and would soon become good Americans. In the borough of Danielson in 1894 – 1895, the majority French Canadian congregation at St. James Catholic Church fought with the Bishop of Hartford over the issue of their leadership. Though their Irish priest was replaced by one from France, they still felt they were being pushed toward assimilation—and they brought their grievances all the way to Rome. Though they did not win their appeal to the Roman Curia, several French Canadian communities in Connecticut, including Waterbury, successfully established their own parishes between 1866 and 1903.
Waterbury was never one of the Connecticut towns most heavily populated by French Canadian; that distinction belongs to smaller textile-focused places such as the state’s eastern boroughs of Jewett City and Danielson, whose Franco populations in 1900 is estimated at 66 percent and 64 percent of the total population, respectively. But Waterbury had large numbers of French Canadians compared to other state towns; in 1900 some 4,000 out of a city of about 51,000 people were French Canadian. Moreover, when in the early 20th-century textile mills started leaving New England for the South to find more tractable non-union labor, French Canadians kept arriving in towns such as Waterbury, whose economy was based on metal work.
Waterbury’s French Canadians enjoyed an unusually cordial relationship with their new neighbors, local government, and religious authorities. In other communities such as Danielson church and city officials tried to block the French-language school instruction that was the very underpinning of la survivance for immigrants trying to pass their culture on to their children. In Waterbury, however, the department of education lent St. Anne’s Parish, founded in 1886, four classrooms in the public Merriman School until they could build their own school. Within two years after the parish was formed, a French Canadian church was built —— and the congregants got the priest of their choosing. St. Anne’s would be the first truly ethnic Catholic parish in Waterbury; it was certainly the first where a language other than English or Latin was used. As the first murmurings of conflict were heard in Danielson in 1888, Waterbury’s French Canadian settlers built a wooden church, establishing a physical presence in the city’s south end. That structure would be replaced in 1922 by the resplendent granite and marble structure whose verdigris copper dome and twin steeples can still be seen from Interstate 84.
The establishment of St. Anne’s Parish symbolizes the gradual shift of Connecticut urban areas from bastions of Anglo-Yankee Protestantism to the ethnic Catholic landscapes that they largely still are today. To build their church, school, and convent, the parish bought the contiguous estates of A.C. Porter, a Yankee farmer, and E.C. Lewis, the Welsh-born founder of Waterbury Farrell Foundry. Over the next 66 years the parish, along with French Canadian businesses, clubs, and dwellings, expanded further into Waterbury’s South End neighborhood. As long-time community member Andy Normandin comments, “Everybody in the community lived within the shadows of the church.”
That French Canadians would be accepted in one part of the state but rejected in another has partly to do with a long-standing public ambivalence over the role of immigrants in our state. Even the 1885 Bureau of Labor Statistics report qualified its vilifying words: “As years go by many of the French Canadians relax their purpose of returning to Canada. They give American habits and institutions an opportunity to take hold upon them. As they become Americanized they drop their worst characteristics and retain their better ones…The establishment of churches of their own…in many parts of New England, has given the French Canadians strong local ties among us, and the prospect is that these tendencies will continue.”
Ruth Glasser is lecturer in history and coordinator of the Urban and Community Studies Program at the University of Connecticut/Waterbury Campus. She last wrote “Tobacco Valley: Puerto Rican Farm Workers in Connecticut,” Fall 2002.