French-Americans - History - New England, New York State

New England, New York State

For more details on this topic, see Quebec diaspora.

In the late 19th century, many Francophones arrived in New England from Quebec and New Brunswick to work in textile mill cities in New England. In the same period, Francophones from Quebec soon became a majority of the workers in the saw mill and logging camps in the Adirondack Mountains and their foothills. Others sought opportunities for farming and other trades such as blacksmiths in Northern New York State. By the mid-20th century French Americans comprised 30% of the Maine's population. Some migrants became lumberjacks but most concentrated in industrialized areas and into enclaves known as 'Little Canadas.'

French Canadian immigrant women saw the United States as a place of opportunity and possibility where they could create alternatives for themselves distinct from the expectations of their parents and their community. By the early 20th century some French Canadian women even began to see migration to the United States to work as a rite of passage and a time of self-discovery and self-reliance. When these women did marry, they had fewer children with longer intervals between children than their Canadian counterparts. Some women never married, and oral accounts suggest that self-reliance and economic independence were important reasons for choosing work over marriage and motherhood. These women conformed to traditional gender ideals in order to retain their 'Canadienne' cultural identity, but they also redefined these roles in ways that provided them increased independence in their roles as wives and mothers.

The French Americans became active in the Catholic Church where they tried with little success to challenge its domination by Irish clerics. They founded such newspapers as 'Le Messager' and 'La Justice.' The first hospital in Lewiston, Maine, became a reality in 1889 when the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, the 'Grey Nuns,' opened the doors of the Asylum of Our Lady of Lourdes. This hospital was central to the Grey Nuns' mission of providing social services for Lewiston's predominately French Canadian mill workers. The Grey Nuns struggled to establish their institution despite meager financial resources, language barriers, and opposition from the established medical community. Immigration dwindled after World War I.

The French Canadian community in New England tried to preserve some of its cultural norms. This doctrine, like efforts to preserve francophone culture in Quebec, became known as la Survivance.

Potvin (2003) has studied the evolution of French Catholic parishes in New England. The predominantly Irish hierarchy of the 19th century was slow to recognize the need for French-language parishes; several bishops even called for assimilation and English language-only parochial schools. In the 20th century, a number of parochial schools for Francophone students opened, though they gradually closed toward the end of the century and a large share of the French-speaking population left the Church. At the same time, the number of priests available to staff these parishes also diminished. By the 21st century the emphasis was on retaining local reminders of French American culture rather than on retaining the language itself. With the decline of the state's textile industry during the 1950s, the French element experienced a period of upward mobility and assimilation. This pattern of assimilation increased during the 1970s and 1980s as many Catholic organizations switched to English names and parish children entered public schools; some parochial schools closed in the 1970s. Although some ties to its French Canadian origins remain, the community was largely anglicized by the 1990s, moving almost completely from 'Canadien' to 'American'.

Representative of the assimilation process was the career of singer and icon of American popular culture Rudy Vallée (1901–1986). He grew up in Westbrook, Maine, and after serving in World War I attended the University of Maine, then transferred to Yale, and went on to become as a popular music star. He never forgot his Maine roots, and maintained an estate at Kezar Lake.

Read more about this topic:  French-Americans, History

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