Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Church of Two Steeples: Catholicism, Labor, and Ethnicity in Industrial New England, 1869-90

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Church of Two Steeples: Catholicism, Labor, and Ethnicity in Industrial New England, 1869-90

Article excerpt

Addressing his American peers in 1929, famed Canadian historian Arthur Lower reflected on the past, present, and future of New England's Franco-American community. That community, he found, was driven by the missionary zeal encapsulated in the old formula Gesta Dei per Francos (the deeds of God through the French) and by the certainty that it would "come out on top" in the struggle of cultures.1 Struggle there certainly was, in the pursuit of cultural preservation in a foreign, seemingly hostile environment. Yet it is striking that in the time since Lower's piece appeared, there have been few reassessments of the relationship of French Canadian immigrants to the host society in late-nineteenth-century New England. Scholars have taken the assimilationist designs of Catholic authorities in the region, often Irish American, as a matter of fact, although there are grounds for skepticism. This article seeks to offer critical reinterpretations of assimilationist forces in that environment and to better define the ethno-cultural conflict in which French Canadian immigrants were engaged.

When, following the Civil War, dire economic conditions pushed French Canadians onto the soil of the old Puritan enemy, "as Normans overrunning and taking possession of another England," Catholicism had already gained a foothold in the region by way of Irish immigration.2 That did not, however, ensure French Canadians a hearty welcome. Friction within the labor movement and the issue of religious accommodation produced ethnic tensions. The more recent immigrants were decried for their "clannishness, the ignorance of the mass of them, and the patriarchal authority of their religious leaders."3 Historians have, accordingly, emphasized the insularity, in the interest of cultural preservation, of the French of New England in both the labor movement and the Catholic Church. In so doing, numerous scholars have perpetuated historical myths or the language of historical actors without its context. Among these myths is that of Catholic bishops deploying sustained efforts to Americanize French Canadians between 1869 and 1890. In fact, the bishops of New England recognized that immigrants' distinct culture was a boon to their faith and to church interests. It was Anglo-Irish workers, supported by Irish "labor priests," who were most interested in assimilation. Episcopal policy pleased neither Irish labor activists nor the most ardent French Canadian nationalists. Reading the past through the sources left by the latter in particular, historians have related the tale of an oppressive Catholic Church that cared not for minority cultures. By turning to diocesan correspondence and looking beyond nationalist mouthpieces, this article reconsiders episcopal policy in New England and better defines the assimilationist forces with which immigrants from Quebec contended.4

Despite its volume, French Canadian settlement in New England figures marginally in immigration studies. In John Higham's survey, French Canadians are left out of the conversation on anti-Catholicism and are not mentioned in connection to the "[c]risis of the Eighties." Jay P. Dolan acknowledges them as "often overlooked in the history of American immigration" but leaves it to others to delve deeper. Borrowing from Tamara K. Hareven's work on Manchester, John Bodnar remains silent on the extent to which French Canadians fit the pattern of integration typical of European immigrants. Timothy Meagher's work on Worcester, more helpfully, draws attention to economic competition between Catholic immigrant groups. The task for scholars is still to set the French Canadian case in conversation with broader immigration studies and then to contextualize better the group's relationship to other immigrants and preexisting institutions.5

Cultural Affirmation, Cultural Apartness

Pushed at mid-century by population pressures and soil exhaustion, the French Canadians of the St. Lawrence River valley sought seasonal work and became farmhands in Vermont and loggers in Maine. …

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