Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Survivance in New England and the Flint Affair

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College.

The emigration of 900,000 French Canadians to the United States, principally to New England, between 1850 and 1930 raised for them acute problems of survivance. Most of them had left the rural environment of Quebec where such an issue, at least on the personal level, did not arise. When they emigrated to the United States, they entered an environment that was economically, politically, socially and culturally completely different of the one that they had left behind. The most evident was the cultural difference. In their new land, English was the preponderant language, Protestantism was the main faith, and a different way of life, ways of thinking and attitudes prevailed. Many of the original emigrants did not think that it was particularly important to adapt to their new environment, and they devoted little effort to do so. They believed that they were in the United States only temporarily, and hoped to go back to Quebec as soon as possible. However, as time passed, as returns to Quebec were not as permanent as they had originally hoped, as one generation of emigrants gave way to a new one, as children of these emigrants were born in the United States, the phenomenon of the presence of French Canadians in the New England area not only grew but acquired a sense of permanence that none could deny. With permanence, and long residence, the issue of survivance inevitably arose.

To assure their survival, the French Canadians of the New England area could count on a number of assets. The first was their sheer number, and their concentration in the six New England states. For the most part, the French Canadians were concentrated in a number of textile towns where they often constituted a significant portion of the overall population. By 1910, there were 13 clusters of French Canadians in New England towns that exceeded 10,000 people each. Concentration allowed for the possibility of interaction with fellow French Canadians and thus maintaining more easily their language and traditions. To ward off assimilation, they could also count on their strong sense of family. Often, entire families emigrated together, and as much of their life was centred on the family, as was the case in Quebec at the time, they could continue to speak to each other in French. Their sense of separateness was also fostered by the fact that they often maintained links to Quebec. They frequently returned to Quebec to visit relatives. Each return solidified them in their culture and language, and pushed back the need to integrate into American society. As they were clustered in the New England states, they gained access to newspapers in their language. It has been estimated that at the turn of the century there were as many French dailies published in New England as in the whole of Quebec. These newspapers gave them access to material to read in French, gave them news of their community and of Quebec, and put forward a vision of the world with which they had familiarity. It served to link them to one another and to Quebec. Franco-Americans also eventually created national organisations, such as L’Union St. Jean Baptiste d’Amérique, and a variety of fraternal societies. These strengthened the links between the members of the community, served to foster pride in the group and in its accomplishments, removed the isolation that is often felt by immigrants and thus, warded off assimilation. All of this being said, there is no doubt that the greatest asset of the Franco-Americans against assimilation was their parish church.

Franco-Americans identified the parish as the bulk ward against their assimilation. It is evident that wherever they were deprived of control of a parish, wherever they lived in a mixed parish, they were quickly integrated into American society and assimilated. A national parish, one that regrouped a large enough French Canadian population, allowed for the way of life and the institutions of old Quebec to be more easily applied. Traditions could be followed in such a place. Once they controlled a parish, the local parochial school could also teach French as a language, and use it as the language of instruction along with English. Thus children would learn their language not only in their family but in the local school as well. One would reinforce the other and assimilation would be warded off.

However, in order for the parish to play the role outlined above, it was essential that the parish be organised on national lines, rather than the traditional geographical lines. All French Canadians of a locality had to fall under the jurisdiction of such a parish, regardless of precisely where they lived in the locality. If French Canadians had to share a parish, likely with Irish Catholics, they could not expect the reward of survivance from this situation. If it was essential to have a national parish to draw the benefit of survivance, it was equally important that the parish be headed by a French Canadian priest. Only when a French Canadian was the parish priest was the objective of survivance fully grasped and implemented. It would not even do to have a priest from France or Belgium for if they shared with their flock the ability to speak the French language they did not necessarily have a commitment to survivance. Sometimes these priests were the most ardent promoters of integration into American society, and they did not understand, or accept, the close association that the French Canadians made between language and the faith as pillars of survival. Of course, it was even worse if an Irish priest headed the parish.

From nearly the very beginning, there was friction between the Irish and the French in the New England area, as there was in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba and points West in Canada. It is not the purpose here to venture very far into this question. It will be sufficient to point out that in many places the Irish and the French, both downtrodden people who lived long under the domination of others, only controlled one institution: the Roman Catholic Church. It would be fair to say that in places where they met, the Irish and the French vied for supremacy within the Church. It would also be true to say that in the United States, in New England particularly, the Irish episcopacy was strongly opposed to the establishment of national parishes. Why was this the case?

The establishment of national parishes constituted a potential administrative nightmare for the prelates. They had to find priests to staff such parishes; this was not always easy to do. To create a national parish, a block of population had to be detached from existing geographical parishes. This occasioned further difficulties if the remaining population was not large enough to support the original geographical parish. Some of the new national parishes were large and flourishing and the older clergy, with much seniority, often claimed the right to occupy such plum positions.

Yet, despite the problems outlined above, there is little doubt that the Irish episcopacy of New England mainly opposed the creation of national parishes because they did not think them necessary for the maintenance of the faith of their flock, and because they did not believe in the objective of survivance. In fact, they believed that it would be best for all concerned if the French Canadians, and the Germans, the Poles and the Italians, all learned rapidly the English language and assimilated to America. Sometimes such ideas were born out of prejudice, but for the most part the explanation lay elsewhere.

As the original Catholics in the United States, the Irish Catholics had had to face a great deal of discrimination. To nativistic Americans, and there had been a strong current of nativism in the 1840’s and 1850’s, Catholicism was foreign to America, and should be eradicated. Irish Catholics had been persecuted, and they had only been able to withstand the onslaught of persecution and discrimination by showing group solidarity and by displaying nothing but the greatest respect for American ways, by shedding their foreign ways. Only by becoming the most patriotic of Americans did the Irish, and Catholicism, eventually gain a modicum of acceptance in America. As the post Civil War brought new waves of Catholic immigrants to America, the Irish faced, once again, the prospect of discrimination. This was especially the situation since the new immigrants, as was the case for the French Canadians, were clearly marked as "foreign" by virtue of their language and their customs. Thus, for the greater goal of the preservation of Catholicism in America, the foreigners would have to be nationalised by their Church. The Irish episcopacy made it their task to do so and, in this process, became themselves the persecutors of others. Such was the case for the French Canadians of New England. This was duly noted by Edmond de Nevers, the noted French Canadian essayist who wrote in his book L’âme américaine [1900]: "The Irish bishops, at least the majority of them, do everything within their power to impose on American Catholics the English language [...] They combat with a fanaticism that is as blind as it is illogical, the expansion of the French language in the East, and the German and Polish languages in the West, and give to non-Irish parishes pastors of their nationality only when they are forced to do so".

French Canadians did not feel comfortable with an Irish pastor, and geographical, and thus mixed parishes. Many of these Irish priests did not know French, or knew too little of it to preach effective sermons and to hear confessions in French. Even when they spoke the language, they often refused the teaching of French in the parochial school. Some are reported to have disdained their French Canadian parishioners, as prejudice against the French, among the Irish, was quite frequent at the time. As French Canadians arrived in New England, often with only their clothes on their backs, homespun at that, they did not cut a fine figure, and sometimes invited ridicule. The Irish of New England, hardly a privileged group themselves, blamed the French for the increasing rarity of jobs, for the hardening of the position of their employers toward workers, for decreasing wages, and the inevitable labour strife that attends such a situation, especially when such strikes were sometimes ended by strike-breaking French Canadians, themselves desperate for employment to support their large families. Some of the Irish pastors reflected these prejudices and the French Canadians felt humiliated and deeply wounded by this.

Not only did French Canadians want national parishes with a French Canadian priest to foster survivance and avoid prejudice but also because their notions of Church governance and ceremonies were somewhat different from the conception held by the Irish-Americans. Always living under the rule of a foreign power, whether British or American, the Irish had learned to practice their religion discreetly so as to avoid attracting attention as much as possible. By contrast, the French Canadians had grown up in an environment where the Church was triumphant, supreme, highly visible and ostentatious. The French parishioners wanted greater use of Church bells, elaborate ceremonies, processions through the city, involvement in many outside activities and celebration of St. Jean Baptiste. They did not wish for pews in Church to be distributed as was done by the Irish and for large payments to be made for baptisms, funerals and masses. They wished their priest to be their guide and confidant in the manner of the rural priests of Quebec. In truth, these, and other elements, also reflected differences in culture.

All of the above factors came to a head in the Flint affair. This affair broke out in 1884 in Fall River, the largest French Canadian community in New England, and the third largest French Canadian town in the world. It is called the Flint affair from the name of the textile company that dominated the parish where the affair broke out. In August of that year, father P.-J.-B. Bédard, pastor of the French Canadian parish of Notre-Dame de Lourdes died. Bédard had been very active on behalf of his parishioners, and much loved and respected for it. He had set up a Church corporation on the model used in Quebec and had run afoul of the Bishop of Providence, Mgr. Thomas Francis Hendricksen, an Irish prelate, over his administration of the parish. To replace Bédard, the Bishop appointed Samuel P. McGee. He was born in Quebec, and reportedly spoke excellent French. The issue here could not be one of lack of knowledge of the language. Rather it was whether or not a French Canadian parish was entitled to a French Canadian priest as a matter of right and, underneath it all, whether or not the French Canadians of Flint were entitled to the institution necessary to their survivance. To the parishioners who appealed to the Bishop to have McGee, said to be very unfriendly to the French Canadians, removed, the Bishop is reported to have answered: "Why do you wish to have a French priest? In ten years, everybody will speak English in your parishes". That, of course, was precisely the issue. Furthermore, if a French Canadian priest was appointed pastor of the parish, it could never be as a matter of right but instead as a favour.

The refusal of their Bishop did not deter the parishioners. There started a war that was to last for two years. The French Canadians of Flint, obviously strongly united and determined on this issue, settled on course of action that involved two main elements. On the one hand, they sought to make life difficult, indeed miserable, for McGee. He found it impossible to effectively carry out his duties. When he preached, a large part of the congregation was taken by fits of coughing or simply walked out noisily from the Church. Many parishioners refused to support the parish and the Church; they removed themselves to other parishes. Vandalism occurred on more than one occasion, the choir refused to sing etc. By February 1885, McGee was fed-up and requested his removal to the great satisfaction of the parishioners. By then, the case was openly discussed in the press and had become something of a cause célèbre. Bishop Hendricksen dug in his heels and appointed another Irish pastor. This time the parishioners boycotted the mass. This opposition led the Bishop to respond by removing the host and closing down the Church. He placed the entire parish under Church Interdict. In such a case, priests are to refuse to give sacraments to those so affected. It is a strong ecclesiastical penalty, one just short of excommunication. The surprising thing is that it did not have the anticipated effect on the parishioners. Proud, and determined of their right in the eyes of God, they did not give in.

The other tactic used was to appeal to Rome. The parishioners gathered funds and sent Narcisse Martineau as their delegate to put their case at the Vatican. Supported by some bishops from Quebec, Martineau was quite successful and received two audiences with the pope. He returned to Massachusetts with the firm belief that the case had been won. Yet it dragged on for at least another year. In the meantime, the second appointee of Hendricksen also had resigned and he had had to appoint a third Irish pastor to the parish.

When Rome’s decision came in the end, all could claim victory. According to Rome, following in this the advice of the bishops of New England, to have a priest of one’s nationality was not a right but a favour that the bishop might wish to extend. Bishop Hendricksen was instructed to extend such a favour to have peace. To save face, he appointed another Irish pastor with an experienced French Canadian curate as his assistant. A few months later, the Irish pastor resigned and the French Canadian curate was appointed pastor. Thus ended the Flint affair.

The apparent victory of the French Canadians of Flint was not repeated elsewhere. When such cases multiplied, the response of the Irish episcopacy was, for a time, so as to avoid troubles, to appoint French Canadian pastors and to create national parishes. Historian Yves Roby, in his study of the Franco-Americans, found that 84 national French Canadian parishes were created throughout New England between 1861 and 1900. However, in several instances, once established, Irish pastors were eventually appointed. When such appointments raised debate, as they inevitably did, the resolution of these quarrels went against the hopes of the French Canadian parishioners. Such was the case in Ware, Brunswick, Danielson and North Brookfield. While the majority of French Canadians enjoyed the support of a national parish, and the comfort of a French Canadian priest, they could not be guaranteed to keep these forever. Eventually, as assimilation inevitably took its toll, they pressed less for such institutions and the community was divided between the hard-liners and those who wished to accommodate. The last major phase in this battle took place at the time of the Sentinelle Affair.

Note on sources: the Flint affair has been examined by Yves ROBY, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, 1776-1930, Sillery, Septentrion, 1990, pp. 155-183. Roby insists especially on the background to the affair rather than on the issue itself. Details on the development of the Flint affair may be found in Philip T. SILVIA, jr., "The ‘Flint Affair’: French-Canadian Struggle for Survivance", in Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (July 1979): 414-435. The relationship between survivance and the parish is explored by Mason WADE, "The French Parish and Survivance in Nineteenth Century New England", in Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 36 (July 1950): 163-189.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College