Hard Beginnings: The Franco-American “Colony” in Brunswick

The week of March 14th is the international semaine de la francophonie, or week of the Francophonie, an international organization of French-speaking regions and countries.  Here in Maine, we use this as an opportunity to hold our own official Franco-American Day (Wednesday, March 16th).  Events will be held at the State House in Augusta from 9am-Noon (ish) and in other parts of the state, like the Franco Center in Lewiston, which will showcase music and a movie in the afternoon and evening.

I thought I’d use this opportunity to explore some general themes related to Franco-American life in Maine, especially the early lives of Franco immigrants.  I recently came across a gem of a source within the 50th anniversary commemorative program for St. John’s parish in Brunswick.  It contains a piece entitled “Unedited memories of the old days,” which sums up Franco life in 19th century Maine very well.

You can read the original French, and my English translation here: Memories of Early Brunswick, c1860.

Religion was the bedrock of the community

St John's Church, Brunswick, Postcard.

St John’s Church, Brunswick, Postcard.

The first French Canadians to arrive in Brunswick in the 1850s and 60s found there was no catholic priest to minister to them.  Undeterred, however, they would bring the nearest parish priest, who lived nine miles away, in Bath, to them:

In the beginning of the colony, the parishioners took it in turns to collect the Bath priest in a carriage; but later he bought himself a carriage and a horse, which he kept in his stable and which he used to do his business in Brunswick. He usually arrived on Sunday morning and said a low mass in which he always said a little sermon in French. Although of Irish origin, the Bath priests all knew French. The lecture was short, because normally the priest was obliged to go say a second Mass to a more distant mission.

Notice that it was important that the priest spoke French.  Most of the Canadians would have spoken no English.  Elsewhere in the text, we learn that there was a French-speaking Acadian community already living in Bath.  The constraints on the priest’s time meant some changes to traditional services – weddings were usually held in the afternoon, rather than the usual morning.  This was an inconvenience, since parishioners were required to fast from midnight of the night before until the service, to receive communion.  The early immigrants were also short on funds:

There was no bell…but the Canadians were so well organized that the arrival of the priest was quickly known. Moreover, the Mass was always said at the same time, about eight o’clock…and to avoid lighting expenses, evening services were held in the afternoon.

[For our first sung mass] there was neither an organ nor a harmonium, but there was no shortage of goodwill. So we had a sung mass and for a moment the parishioners believed they were back in Canada.

Eventually, the Brunswick Francos were assigned their own parish priest, and the community, still mainly poor millworkers, contributed several thousand dollars to purchase a former protestant church, which was eventually reconsecrated into the first St. John’s.

Life Was Dominated by Work at the Cabot Mill


Winding Room Workers, Cabot Mill, 1925.  Pejepscot Historical Society

Winding Room Workers, Cabot Mill, 1925. Pejepscot Historical Society

Most French-Canadians came to the United States to work in the booming industrial sector – in textile- and paper-mills, or shoe shops.  In Brunswick, the major employer was the Cabot Mill, which produced textiles.  Entire families worked together in the mills, even at the detriment of the children’s secular and spiritual education:

Closer to the time of first communion, the Bath priest would come, over the course of a month, twice a week to teach catechism. The children at that time, worked from a very young age at the factory, often as young as seven. The priest therefore came in the evening, around 6 o’clock, after work, and on the steps of the rectory where on the grass of the lawn, he tried to teach an abbreviated catechism to the children. This is all that was required at this time for first communion. In this thankless task, the priest sometimes had the help of some devoted parishioners.  In this way, Joseph Coulombe taught the catechism for nine years in a small room of his father’s house. “I had,” he says, “about a dozen big boys. Sometimes it was very hard because some of them were real ‘tough guys’.”

Despite these economic realities, it was important to the Franco-Americans that their children be educated, and specifically, educated in French.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Cabot Mill’s managers agreed:

In the beginning of the colony, there was no parochial school. Young children who wanted to learn were forced to go to public schools. About 1864, Mrs. Ignace Thibault was commissioned and paid by the owners of the Cabot factory to teach French to the Canadian children.

Later, the parish would establish its own school, and enlist female religious orders to give the instruction – first the Dames de Sion, and later the Ursuline Sisters.

Early Immigrants Faced Intense Hostility

Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, 1854.  Maine Historical Society

Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, 1854. Maine Historical Society

The first French-Canadian settlers to Brunswick, arriving in the mid-19th century, came to Maine at the height of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment called “Know-Nothing-ism”.  The “Know-Nothings” organized themselves around political opposition to Catholic immigrants, and acts of violence against these communities. In Maine, the Old South Church in Bath was burned in 1854; a French-speaking Swiss priest, Fr. John Bapst, was tarred and feathered in Ellsworth, and a Catholic Chapel on Lincoln Street in Lewiston was also razed.  The Brunswick Francos faced their own struggles:

There was such antipathy between Protestant Americans, the Irish and Canadians, that often, during encounters on the street and even in the factory, things came to insults and to blows. “We did not dare go out at night, a witness told us, for fear of finding ourselves in a fight. If you wanted to go to the post office to get your mail? We would all get together as a “gang” to protect ourselves in case we were attacked. What’s more, it was unthinkable to go out on the town, for young men and for young ladies alike. We would just stay quietly at home. “

One incident in particular stood out:

In Brunswick, things didn’t come to these excesses of savagery, but it is reported that one evening, returning to Topsham and passing by a small house on the edge of the river, occupied by two Canadian families, Labbé and Lévesque, some of these fanatics tried to demolish it and to throw the debris into the river. They did not get to bring their criminal project to completion; but a woman, who was then alone and sick in the house, was so frightened that she died a few days later as a result of this fear.

Even by 1927, the Tide Had Turned

Franco-Americans in Brunswick, as elsewhere, earned the respect of the local Yankees through hard work, or as an established part of life as their numbers continued to increase, and as they earned political office.  Things were by no means always sunny, even in the 20th century (I’ll write more on that later), but the 1927 piece ends on this cautiously optimistic note:

Today the Franco-Americans make up half the population of the town and have come to be respected.  For their part, the Protestants have lost their former bigotry. If they still do not like Catholics, at least they readily acknowledge that there is good in them and that, considering the progress they have made in the past, they will have to deal with them in the future.

Happy Franco-American week in Maine and Bonne Semaine de la Francophonie around the world!


James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.