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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Franco-Americans, the Sentinelle Affair and Quebec Nationalism

Damien-Claude Bélanger,
Département d’histoire,
Université de Montréal.

The history of the Roman Catholic Church in North America has been marked by numerous struggles between the overwhelmingly Irish-American episcopate which, for the most part, ran the Church outside of Quebec during the 19th century and well into the 20th, and their Franco-American, Acadian or French Canadian flocks. These struggles were frequently centred on the right of French Catholics to French parochial schools, universities, hospitals, charities, parishes, bishoprics and fraternal organisations. Though the immediate causes for the clashes which would periodically pit the French and Irish episcopates of America against each other can seem rather local in nature, they were all part of a general internal power struggle for supremacy within the Catholic Church in North America. Globally, the Irish episcopate sought to impose itself, and the English language, as the major force in American Catholicism. This struggle existed not only between the Irish and French episcopates but also pitted the Irish against virtually every other Catholic group in America at some time. One must understand that the Irish who, historically, have not controlled their own state for important periods of time, have always been able to exert a considerable control over their religious affairs. This created a situation where the Irish in North America naturally sought to establish their hegemony over the continental Church upon their arrival in America. Their early arrival in America, predating most other Catholic immigration outside of French Canada, was instrumental in establishing this relative hegemony.

While there had been quarrels before, one of the most notable of the struggles that involved the Irish and the French-Canadians in North America was the Sentinelle Affair. This crisis, which was named after the Woonsocket, Rhode Island, newspaper La Sentinelle, was centred in the diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, but had repercussions throughout New England and Quebec, and even made waves as far as the Vatican. It is of particular interest to us because it is probably the most discussed event in Franco-American history, and caused quite a stir within ultramontane French-Canadian nationalist circles.

The immediate origins of the Sentinelle Affair can be found in the social and political climate of the United States during and immediately after the First World War. During the War, a wave of nativism swept through America. In its first phase, this wave sought to rid America of all Germanic influence. German-Americans were harassed, their institutions were shut down, and the teaching of their language was removed, for a time, in most schools and universities. While understandable during wartime, anti-German nativism spread rapidly to other ethnic groups who were suspected of collaboration with the enemy, or of opposing American involvement in the War. Thus, during this second phase, several Catholic groups were affected by this wave of native-born American intolerance. Irish-Americans bore the brunt of this offensive because, siding with their compatriots in Ireland who had hampered the British war effort, they had opposed America’s involvement in the war. Franco-Americans also tasted some of this intolerance. Although they had wholeheartedly participated in America’s war effort, their compatriots in Canada had not. To most native-born Americans the distinction between Franco-Americans and French Canadians was inexistent. Finally, after the Russian Revolution, a third wave of nativism swept through America. Known as the Red Scare, this phase saw many Americans identify subversion with anything foreign. People who were foreign-born or spoke any language other than English were suspected by some of being socialists or agents of revolutionary subversion and contamination. All ideological subversion was seen as being brought from the outside despite the fact that American socialism was largely a native force. Indeed, Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party and the radical industrial union, the International Workers of the World was American-born and said to be « as American as apple pie ». Calls were heard to promote « 100 % Americanism », and to suppress « hyphenates », by outlawing foreign languages and making immigrants take Americanization classes.

Thus, by the 1920’s the social and political climate in America was largely nativistic. Anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment ran high and the Ku Klux Klan experienced a resurrection. For Franco-Americans, this wave of nativism represented a grave danger to their institutional network. State and Federal laws attempted to curtail bilingualism in private schools and a movement was launched to render all primary and secondary schools 100 % American (i.e. public, English, and non-denominational). Franco-American leaders protested, and were somewhat successful in repealing or watering down several State laws. They reminded Americans that roughly 100 000 Franco-Americans had participated in World War One and that America had gone to war to defend France. Recalling the memory of the Marquis of Lafayette, they emphasised France’s role in the American Revolution and affirmed that one could be patriotic while remaining Catholic and bilingual. They also reminded politicians in New England that they controlled the electoral balance of power in several towns and that theirs was a voting block to be reckoned with.

The Roman Catholic episcopate also sought to counter nativism in its own way. Irish-American bishops drafted the Catechism of Catholic Education, a text which sought to unite the Church through a programme of assimilation for all non-English speaking Catholics and an extension of its institutional network. In effect, the American episcopate sought to protect Catholic schools and institutions from public and governmental intolerance and retribution by making the Church as American as possible. Essentially, they attempted to impose their own brand of nativism on the non-Irish Catholics of America through a strengthening of English speaking Catholic institutions. They hoped that this would consolidate Catholicism in America by making it less vulnerable to nativism and by extending its institutional network.

In the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, which contained a sizeable proportion of Franco-Americans, Bishop William Hickey, an Irish-American, sought to implement the proposals contained in the Catechism of Catholic Education. He launched an ambitious project to raise funds, on the parochial level, to build several English language Catholic high schools. Parishes had to fill a certain funding quota or they would have a special tax imposed on their funds to make up the difference.

Several Franco-American leaders protested this measure. Among them was Elphège Daignault, a Woonsocket, R.I. lawyer active in the Association Canado-Américaine, a fraternal organisation founded to provide insurance to Franco-Americans and to promote survivance. For Daigneault, these quotas were too high. Franco-Americans had already contributed heavily to diocesan projects and, in the context of the economic recession of the early 1920’s, could ill-afford another massive charity drive. Moreover, why should Franco-Americans fund English language high schools when Franco-Americans desperately needed more bilingual parochial elementary schools? Daigneault wanted Franco-American funds to be used for French institutions. He pointed out that Franco-Americans had been raising funds for their own bilingual Catholic high school but did not yet have the funds sufficient to build it.

Daignault and his colleagues bombarded Mgr. Hickey and the Holy See with petitions and detailed memoranda stating their case in hopes that the Bishop would give in to their grievances. Daignault and his followers were nationalists and their movement was aided by many members of Quebec’s clergy and episcopate who were naturally preoccupied with the survival of the Franco-American community as a major branch of the French Canadian people. They would not compromise in what they felt was an injustice that threatened the linguistic and, ultimately, the religious survival of Franco-Americans. They believed fervently that the preservation of the language was an essential ingredient in the maintenance of the faith, as these two pillars of survival were intimately intertwined. Aided by l’Ordre des croisés, a secret Franco-American society, they launched an all-out assault against Hickey. In 1924, Daignault and others founded the newspaper La Sentinelle, which became the organ of those who opposed Mgr. Hickey and became known as the Sentinellists. La Sentinelle embarked on a war of words with Mgr. Hickey and anyone who opposed the Sentinellists. The issue was to agitate the Franco-American society and, at its height, in 1927, about 10,000 Franco-Americans met in Woonsocket to express their support for the Sentinellists.

However, not all of Franco-America’s elite supported the Sentinellists. The Union Saint-Jean-Baptiste d’Amérique, another Franco-American fraternal organisation, was the bastion of the anti-Sentinellist forces. In 1925, at a congress in Willimantic, Connecticut, where most Franco-American societies had assembled to co-ordinate their efforts to promote fraternal action and the promotion of survivance, Franco-America’s elite split. This elite, both lay and clerical, was now divided into two camps: the Sentinellists and their opponents. Both groups were nationalists and their aims were similar: ensuring the linguistic and cultural survival of Franco-Americans. However, they differed on the tactics needed to ensure this end. This was not the first time that French Canadian nationalists, though united on the ultimate goal, were divided as to the means that should be used to attain it. The moderates, who opposed the Sentinellists, felt they should collaborate with Mgr. Hickey and the Irish episcopate and that condemning a Bishop was clearly a sin. Led by Élie Vézina, these moderates felt that collaboration best served Franco-American interests while radicalism would ultimately harm the faith and language of Franco-Americans and would hasten assimilation.

With Franco-America’s elite clearly divided into two camps, the Sentinelle affair entered into its radical phase. La Sentinelle began to attack Mgr. Albert Guertin, Bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire, who had sided with the moderates and was the only Franco-American bishop in New England. Daignault, after having consulted various theologians in Quebec, decided to bring Mgr. Hickey to court over his funding drive. He contended that parish funds were to be administered by the parishioners and could not be taxed by the diocese. However, under the parochial management system in force in America, the Corporation Sole, the Bishop could dispose of parochial funds as he pleased. In this respect, American law was different from Quebec law. Daignault lost his case and found himself increasingly isolated as his radicalism began to put people off, including most of his supporters in Quebec. He then called for a boycott of Church funds by Franco-Americans in the Diocese of Providence, hoping that Mgr. Hickey would give in.

When this did not happen, Daignault went to Rome to plead his case before the Pope and avoid ecclesiastical retribution. However, a delegation of American Bishops had preceded him and he was refused an audience with the Pope. While in Rome Daignault learned that he and 55 of his supporters had been excommunicated and that La Sentinelle had been put on the Church Index. It thus became a sin for Catholics to read, sell or distribute the paper.

Daignault returned to America in 1928 to learn that his movement had further radicalised. One of his collaborators had printed a brochure calling upon Franco-Americans to join the American Catholic Church, a schismatic church with Catholic rites but no ties to the Holy See. This enraged Daigneault who was a devout Roman Catholic, and he had the brochures burned. Indeed, all of the Sentinellists were devout Catholics. They sought to protect the faith of their compatriots through their apparently anticlerical activities.

The final insult to Daignault came early in 1929 when Henri Bourassa, long the guiding force of Quebec nationalism, condemned the Sentinellist movement in Le Devoir. After an ecclesiastical excommunication, it now seemed that he had been excommunicated by Quebec nationalists. Daignault and his supporters gave in and asked their Bishop for forgiveness. Mgr. Hickey accepted it and lifted the excommunication. The radical wing of Franco-American nationalism had been broken, although the divisions engendered by the 1925 rift would never be patched up. Indeed, even today, Franco-Americans remain divided over the whole affair.

The Sentinelle affair exposed the fundamental division that existed among Franco-America’s elite. However, this elite shared a remarkably similar vision of survivance. The Sentinellists were more inclined to frown upon integration into American society, wanted stronger ties between Franco-America and French-Canada, and were less compromising than their opponents, who wanted stronger ties with France, were more favourable to partial integration into American society and sought « elite accommodations » with the Irish-American episcopate. Both sides agreed that the French language was the major element in the preservation of the Catholic faith for Franco-Americans. However, the Sentinellists made the links between language and faith seem so intense that they were willing to defy their episcopate to defend their faith. Globally, the rift was more over methods to ensure survivance than on survivance itself. Yet, there is no doubt that the defeat of the Sentinellists not only put an end to militant survivance among Franco-Americans but, along with other factors coming into play at this time, began a phase of accelerated integration of Franco-Americans into the mainstream of American society.

At the onset, the Sentinellists were very close to French Canadian traditional nationalists. Indeed, the entire affair also exposed the rift which had occurred within nationalism in French Canada. Initially, nationalists such as Lionel Groulx, increasingly the leading proponent of it in Quebec, and Mgr. L. A. Paquet, an eminent theologian who was frequently called upon to discuss matters of language and religion, and the connection between them, supported the Sentinellists, whether privately or publicly. However, as the movement radicalised itself, many nationalists silenced themselves, for while they approved of the Sentinellists’ ends, they could not bring themselves to approve of their methods as Catholicism was an essential value in their mental universe, and in the hierarchy of their values the first pillar of survival. However, they did not condemn the movement but began, officiously, to counsel moderation.

One French-Canadian nationalist, Henri Bourassa, stunned his followers by loudly condemning the Sentinellists. During the 1920’s, his thought had profoundly shifted. Influenced by Pope Pius XI, who condemned nationalism as being an obstacle to peace and the unity of the Universal Church, Bourassa began to attack what he considered extreme manifestations of nationalism as a sin. While nationalists such as Lionel Groulx underlined that the French language had to be preserved in order to insure that French Canadians would remain Catholic, Bourassa was unable to accept that the interest of the Universal Church could be subordinate to those of a national language. Bourassa felt that the Sentinellists had placed their language above their faith, which was sinful. Although both Groulx and Bourassa felt that the French language was the guardian of the Catholic faith in French Canada, the latter was no longer willing to believe that French Canadians or Franco-Americans could attack or severely criticise Catholic clergymen in order to defend their language. Indeed, while in 1912, Bourassa supported Franco-Ontarians in their struggle against the infamous Regulation XVII and the Irish-Canadian episcopate that had helped bring it about, and had in 1910 defended the use of the French language at the Eucharistic Congress, by the late 1920’s, he felt that Franco-Americans should first and foremost obey their Irish-American bishops. The interests of the Universal Church were greater than those of Franco-American Catholicism.

Bourassa’s condemnation of the Sentinellists put an end to his status as the leader of French-Canadian nationalism. Indeed, it was the point of rupture between himself and his former followers. For them, despite Bourassa’s former prestige, it became obvious that he could no longer be considered a nationalist leader, or even a nationalist. Increasingly marginalised, he would have to give up his position as editor of Le Devoir after a good deal of pressure was placed upon him to resign.

The sentinellist affair thus helped usher in a new generation of Quebec nationalists led by Lionel Groulx. Historians have had a tendency to exagerate the differences between the nationalisms of Groulx and Bourassa. Like the Sentinellists and their Franco-American adversaries there are more similar than dissimilar elements within their respective doctrines. However, it is clear that Groulx did progressively replace Bourassa as the intellectual leader of French-Canadian nationalism in the 1920’s. The Sentinellist Affair simply helped accelerate a break that had been gestating for almost a decade.

Note on sources: The Sentinelle affair has been extensively studied, although its Canadian ramification would deserve further attention. The leading historian on this question is Richard S. SORRELL, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on this issue. It is titled The Sentinelle Affair (1924-1929) and militant "survivance": The Franco-American Experience in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1975, 484p. Much of the substance of the thesis was distilled in two articles the author wrote. These are: "The Sentinelle Affair (1924-1929): Religion and militant Survivance in Woonsocket, R.I.", in Rhode Island History, Vol. 36, No. 3, (august 1977): 67-80; "La Sentinelle et la Tribune: Le rôle joué par ces journaux de Woonsocket dans la Sentinelle", in Claire QUINTAL, Le journalisme de langue française aux États-Unis, Quatrième colloque de l’Institut français du Collège de L’Assomption, Québec, Conseil de la vie française, 1984, pp.34-49.

Major contributions were made by the following authors: Robert-B. PERREAULT, Elphège-J. Daigneault et le mouvement sentinelliste à Manchester, New Hampshire, Bedford, National Materials Development Center for French and Creole, 1981, 243p. Robert RUMILLY, Histoire des Franco-Américains, Montreal, 1958, 552p.; Yves ROBY, Lles Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, 1776-1930, Sillery, Septentrion, 1990, pp. 273-330. The thesis of Pierre ANCTIL, Aspects of Class Ideology in a New England Ethnic Minority: The Franco-Americans of Woonsocket, Rhode Island (1865-1929), New School for Social Research, 1980, pp. 148-278 contains an excellent discussion on this question. See also Hélène FORGET, L’Agitation sentinelliste au Rhode Island (1924-1929), M. A. thesis, Université de Montréal, 1953, 83p.

Elphège DAIGNEAULT himself wrote Le vrai mouvement sentinelliste en Nouvelle-Angleterre, 1923-1929, et l’affaire du Rhode Island, Montréal, edition du Zodiaque, 1936, 246p.; another contemporary account is J.-Albert FOISY, Histoire de l’agitation sentinelliste dans la Nouvelle-Angleterre, 1925-1928, Woonsocket, La Tribune, 1928, 427p. This last work is a sharp condemnation of the whole movement.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College