SOUTHBRIDGE – Barbara J. Martel remembers when she was a young child seeing the striking monument with the bronze bust of Felix Gatineau at the corner of Main and South streets when she attended the former Notre Dame School.
By her early teens she had learned more about her family history, giving her a deeper appreciation of Mr. Gatineau, her great-grandfather and a French-Canadian immigrant who settled in town as a young man in 1877. He later became one of the area’s most distinguished citizens and a prime example for his community of what it meant to achieve the American dream.
As Ms. Martel, a registered nurse at Harrington Hospital, got older, it became common for her to encounter people who expressed their love and appreciation for the legacy of Mr. Gatineau who, among other things, became a local businessman, leader of social clubs for fellow French-speaking residents, a member of the Board of Selectmen and a state legislator who was elected on three separate occasions.
According to an inscription on the monument, he also served as Overseer of the Poor from 1895 to 1906, and later as trustee of the Massachusetts School for the Feeble Minded in Waverley.
“When I meet some of the elderly people, they just find it fascinating that they met somebody who is a descendant of Felix,” said Ms. Martel of Sturbridge, a proud great-granddaughter.
Now, nearly 100 years after Mr. Gatineau’s death in 1927, Ms. Martel, her family and others will have an opportunity to learn more about him and the lives of the French-Canadians that at the time made up 60 percent of the town’s population.
A 1919 book written in French by Mr. Gatineau, “L’Histoire des Franco-Americains de Southbridge,” was recently translated into English. It describes what was happening in the lives of French-Canadians who immigrated to New England, particularly to Southbridge, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Elizabeth Blood, a professor who coordinates the French translation program at Salem State University and is the book’s translator, will discuss it at Jacob Edwards Library Sept. 27, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Ms. Blood said the project, which included about six months to do the translation, was a labor of love. As a researcher and scholar, she was fascinated by Mr. Gatineau’s book because of the level of detail it provides about the French-Canadian community.
“It’s just like a treasure trove of information that we would spend many, many hours trying to decipher from original records and trying to speculate about what this means for people and how people lived,” said Ms. Blood, who is also of French-Canadian descent.
“This book tells you all that. It’s just an amazing comprehensive overview of what people did and how they did it. It’s like sort of all the information you wish you knew about your ancestors that usually disappears,” she said.
Ms. Blood said she believes Mr. Gatineau wrote the book out of sheer love of his community. She said in the book, he says “this is for the future generations so you can see what we did to build up society and you can carry on this legacy we created.”
Leslie Choquette, director of the French Institute at Assumption College in Worcester, wrote the introduction. The college was founded in 1904 as a bilingual French college, with priests from France and Belgium as teachers. Teaching in French was gradually phased out after World War II. The school’s French Institute, which preserves the memory of the French in North America, has Mr. Gatineau’s collection of personal papers, correspondences, photos and diaries are archived.
According to the book’s introduction, the French-Canadian population in New England skyrocketed from 37,000 to 573,000 between 1860 and 1900. “In Southbridge, a burgeoning center of the textile and optical industries, the French-Canadian community grew from 500 to 6,000, while climbing from 12 to 60 percent of the town’s population.” Worcester also had a larger population of French-Canadians. And Fall River, at the time, was the largest Franco-American center with around 33,000 Franco-Americans, but they made up a smaller percentage of the local population.
Ms. Choquette said there were several things happening at the time that drove French-Canadians, including her great-great grandfather, Joseph Choquette, to immigrate to New England. Her ancestor settled in Rhode Island around 1870.
After losing the Seven Year’s War that lasted between 1754 and 1763, France turned over all its North American possessions to the British, except for Louisiana which was given to Spain. After years of political unrest, French Canadians engaged in intense rebellions against the British colonial government and local political corruption, particularly the Patriots’ War in 1837-38 in an area between Montreal and the Vermont border.
The British quickly put down the uprisings, leading to the execution of many participants while others fled to the United States.
In the 1830s and 1840s, an agricultural crisis in Quebec left many with the option to move to marginal agricultural lands or go somewhere else. Many were drawn to higher-paying factory jobs in the U.S., particularly in the textile factories in New England.
Between 1840 and 1930, approximately one million French Canadians came to the U.S. The migration came to a screeching halt during the Great Depression that led the U.S. to basically shutting down immigration, starting in the 1920s, to prevent competition for jobs.
Ms. Choquette said Mr. Gatineau’s emigration in 1877 was part of a chain migration of French-Canadians from his hometown of Sainte-Victoire-de-Sorel. About 90 percent of the early French-Canadians in Southbridge came from the small town and surrounding communities in Quebec.
Building a new network
Once here, the transnational network of family, friends and former neighbors in Canada helped other immigrants find homes and employment. Many worked at American Optical and other factories. Other French-Canadians worked in construction and appears to have been the inventor of the three-decker to economically house thousands of immigrants who came to New England to work in the factories, Ms. Choquette noted.
Mr. Gatineau, who was 19 or 20 when he settled in Southbridge, initially worked at one of the local textile factories. He later went to work for a French-Canadian grocer, before opening his own dry goods store. There he came in contact with French-Canadians and other residents in town. The new Americans, who were a majority of the population, were able to put people like Mr. Gatineau in prominent positions in local and statewide politics.
Ms. Blood, the Salem State University professor, said she was happy to provide her services after being contacted by Alan Earls, a Southbridge native who lives in Franklin where he operates ViaAppia Press. He published the book through Amazon.
Mr. Earls’ late father, Robert K. Earls, was half French-Canadian. The elder Earls’ mother, Emma Blanchard, is one of the French Canadians Mr. Gatineau mentions in his book.
“I’ve always been interested in history and my family genealogy, but this book has been a frustration for me,” he explained. “Although I took French in high school, I guessed at things and probably guessed wrong.”
Librarian Margaret Morrissey, director of the library that has other items that honor Mr. Gatineau, said a large turnout is expected at the Sept. 27 event and copies of the book will be available.
“This is an opportunity for the French-Canadian community and others to take pride in their heritage and legacy they left in this community. And, how it continues,” said Ms. Morrissey, an Irish immigrant. “I understand what it’s like to be from some place else and have a pride in your community.”
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