Exploring Franco-American History in Lowell
In honor of our Lowell Reads selection, Legends of Little Canada: Aunt Rose, Harvey’s Bookland, and my Captain Jack by Charlie Gargiulo, we are going to look at the history related to French Canadian immigrants (or as listed below Franco-Americans) as it pertains to Lowell.
Within our local history materials, we have a number of studies, memorabilia and more that can help those looking into the French Canadian history (or their own family history) to gain unique insight about this lives of this group. It is estimated that between 1860-1900 around 30,000 French Canadians migrated to Lowell to work in the mills. Little Canada, or Le Petit Canada, was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the United States.
The impact on French Canadians in Lowell is too numerous to count, but here are some of the amazing firsts for this group:
Louis Bergeron was the first documented French Canadian to come to Lowell in 1841. He was a blacksmith. He was followed in 1845 by Alarie Mercier.
Others who joined him lived in a boardinghouse on Middlesex Street behind the Richardson Hotel and worked as carpenters.
Dr. Deodat Mighault was the first Franco-American doctor in Lowell, arriving in 1859.
In 1865, several companies in Lowell hired Samuel P. Marin to visit his native province of Quebec to search for labor workers for the mills.
Lucien Lagier and Andre Marie Garin, both Oblates, arrived in Lowell on April 18, 1868 to begin preaching. They established a mission in the cellar of St. Patrick’s Church. Soon after, St. Joseph’s church on Lee Street was established and became the first Franco-American church in the archdiocese of Boston.
Also, in 1868, two societies for French Canadians existed in Lowell – 1) the Canadian French Institute of Lowell – a cultural and education society, which included a night school and 2) a political group focused on the independence of Canada. By January 1869, the Saint Jean Baptiste Benevolent Society of Lowell was formed for mutual aid. The Union Saint Joseph joined it by 1870.
The Intitut Canadien Francais was founded in 1868 by J.L. Loiselle, which was a literary and education society with a night school for new immigrants to learn English, math, and more. It only lasted the year.
In 1874, Samuel P. Marin was the first Franco-American in New England to be elected to City Council.
In November 1883, St. Joseph’s school on Moody Street opened with an enrollment of 400 boys and 390 girls under the direction of the Grey Nuns of the Cross. It was the first Franco-American school of the archdiocese. When enrollment exceeded 1,200 in 1891, the genders were separated and St. Joseph’s College, under the direct of the Marist Brothers was built on Merrimack Street.
Attorney J. H. Guillett was admitted to the bar in 1888 as Lowell’s first Franco-American lawyer.
In 1896, Dr. Georges O. Lavallee was the first Franco-American doctor from Lowell to graduate from the Harvard Medical School.
George Charette of Lowell was dubbed the Hero of the Merrimac, who sank the ship the Merrimac in the straights of Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish American War. He was awarded the Congressional medal of honor in 1899 and A. Mirault of Lowell created a march in his honor.
In 1935, Dewey Archambault was the first Franco-American mayor of Lowell.
Representative Henry Achin served from 1912 to 1937 with his most famous accomplishment was having New Year’s Day being made a legal holiday in Massachusetts.
At one point, Lowell had 22 Franco-American newspapers. The Library has some of them on microfilm.
The Franco-Americans in Lowell had a tremendous impact on music. Calixa Lavallee, the composer of the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada,” lived in Lowell for a period of time and married an American women in 1867. The Champagne brothers (Philias, Octave, and Eusebe) and their Orion Music Company flourished in Lowell – the Library has some reproductions of their sheet music as well a collection of it is held by the Lowell Historical Society at the Center for Lowell History. Louis St. Cyr immigrated with his family to Lowell in 1878 and became a world-known strongman and was amazing for his feats.
Many Franco-American social, cultural, veterans and musical organizations were established including Le Cercle Jeanne Mance, Le Club Richelieu, the Franco-American Male Chorus, l’Equipe du Bon Vieux Temps, La Chorale Orion, Les Franco-Americains, Franco-American War Veterans, Veterans of St.-Louis Parish, Le Chanteclerc, La Feuille D’Erable and Coureur des Bois, CMAC, Club des Citoyens-Americains, Club Lafayette, Club Social de Centralville, Club Social de Pawtucketville, and Club Passe-Temps.
In the library’s Local History and Reference Rooms (for in library use only), there are a number of collections that are available for reading, including:
- Dr. Joseph H. Roy’s celebrate volume of poetry Voix Etranges.
- Alliance Francaise edited by Antoine Clement
- Histoire dun voyage de France aux Estas Unis : en passant par le Canada de la famille Croteau originaire de “Veules” Les Rose, France Normandie by George A. Croteau.
- 10 generations of Croteau in Canada and United States researched and edited by George A. Croteau.
- La Presse franco-américaine et la politique : L’Oeuvre by Charles-Roger Daoust
- Les avocats Franco-Americains de Lowell, Massachusetts 1886-1936 by Arthur L. Eno.
For those who’d be interested in Lowell’s most famous Franco-American writer, Jack Kerouac, consider borrowing his most Lowell-centric pieces, including Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Visions of Gerard, or Vanity of Duluoz.
This is merely a snapshot of a few ways that the French Canadian immigrants who came to Lowell impacted our history and legacy. Many traditions, institutions and more still exist today. For more information related to this group, we recommend the following pages for more history and information:
- Le Comité Franco-Américain de Lowell
- Franco American School (Facebook page)
- Friends of the Franco American Grotto (Facebook page)
- RichardHowe.com – Franco American School: Some History
- RichardHowe.com – Lowell’s Little Canada
- Forgotten New England – Lowell’s Franco American Schools and Its Connection to My Family History
- YouTube Video: French-Canadians of Lowell with Suzanne Beebe
Note: Many of the facts and images presented above were obtained from The Franco-Americans of Lowell, Massachusetts by Richard Santerre. Published by the Franco-American Day Committee, June 1972. This pamphlet is available in the Franco-American vertical files at the Pollard Memorial Library.