CHAPTER 1: BEGINNINGS
If you were to visit Fall River for the first time, two things would capture your attention immediately: the huge granite mills and the surprising number of churches.
This is the story of one of those churches, St. Anne’s. Over one hundred years ago, on July 4, 1906, this imposing twin-towered, marble-clad Fall River landmark was consecrated. The story of its construction and of years that have followed sheds light not only on the contributions that its parishioners have brought to the city, but also provides insights on the history, sociology, and ambitions of those who settled Fall River, a city shaped by industriousness, opportunities, and faith.
But first we have to go back, way back, to gain a broader perspective…
FALL RIVER: THE EARLY YEARS
Imagine you could board a time machine and go back to the Fall River of, say, the 1870s. What would you experience?
You’d discover that Fall River had a surprising density, vibrancy, and bustle. Fall River, after all, was well on its way to becoming a significant city. A lofty, Victorian-styled city hall would anchor the city’s center. North Main and South Main streets would radiate away from it, following the same path that they do today. But unlike today, both streets would be crowded with pedestrians, going about their business, shopping, depositing money in banks, and crossing paths with their friends.
You’d be surprised by what you’d hear, too: Most people speaking English would have a distinctive Irish brogue, and many others would be talking in an unusual-sounding form of French. You’d occasionally hear Portuguese, Polish, Ukrainian, and Italian, too. It would be as if you were in some cosmopolitan European city.
There would be no cars at all, just horse-drawn streetcars and wagons rumbling down mostly cobblestone streets. Gas lamps would light the roads. The sound of train whistles would echo in the distance. As you looked down the hill from City Hall, you’d see row after row of mill buildings – most are now gone – sloping downward toward the waterfront. On the Taunton River would be several sailing ships and perhaps one or two of the proud, quaint steamships of the Fall River Line.
If you strolled away from the city’s commercial center, you’d find streets thick with wooden, multi-family houses, just as they are today. St. Mary’s Church would be a familiar sight, and nearby, on Second Street, would be a small, modest house that, in a few decades, would become rather infamous. The Bordens lived there.
If you strayed much past the heart of the city, though, you’d be surprised by how thinly settled the rest of Fall River was. Many of the streets we’re familiar with today hadn’t even been laid out. The area to the south of Bradford Avenue would be mostly empty fields, with a few buildings along major streets and a cluster of homes at Globe “village.” There, in 1811, Joseph Durfee had constructed Fall River’s first cotton mill. It took advantage of a stream that flowed westward and downward from Cook Pond and Slade Pond (the latter now filled in as Father Kelly park).
If, instead, you walked eastward along Pleasant street, you’d recognize the mills that still line that street today. But once you passed Plymouth Avenue (then called Eight Rod Way), you’d again find yourself in a sparsely-settled area, punctuated by an occasional concentration of homes adjacent to a mill complex. The Flint area would be a neighborhood just forming. Eastern Avenue (its original name: Six Rod way) would cross largely undeveloped land.
The city’s North End, past Prospect Street and New Boston Road, would have only a scattering of houses. Once you traveled past the Highlands, there wasn’t much more to see.
Who occupied the city’s housing? Except for the Highlands, mostly immigrants. When Fall River began to take shape in the l8th and early 19th centuries, the people who settled here were, for the most part, descended from the British who had colonized New England. There were also a few Huguenots – French Protestants who had been driven from France in 1685 and had anglicized their names to fit in when they settled elsewhere. (The prominent Durfee family was perhaps an example. D’Urfe may have been their original name.) Interestingly, while in Europe, many Huguenots had worked in textiles. This may be why a few of them eventually made their way to Fall River, where they could pursue a business they knew well, in a geographically favorable place.
So most of Fall River’s original settlers (actually, the Pocassets, a Native American sub-tribe of the Wampanoags, had occupied the Greater Fall River area long before) established farms or built small mills. They were especially attracted to the region because of the Quequechan River, which in those days tumbled down from Watuppa Pond into the Taunton River. (The Quequechan is the “falling river, cited in the city’s name.) The Quequechan provided waterpower for these early mills, as well as a means of disposing wastes. (This was not exactly an ecologically-minded era.) Today, what’s left of the Quequechan largely flows through underground culverts which parallel Route 195.
As Fall River grew and the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, a considerable need for new workers arose. By coincidence, a terrible crop failure in Ireland occurred in the 1840s, leading to a “Potato Famine.” The resulting economic crisis left most Irish people in dire straits. Tens of thousands decided to leave Ireland for jobs in the United States. The Irish population in Fall River surged. Fall River went from being a large village to a small city, incorporating itself in 1854. A year later, St. Mary’s – a graceful Gothic church – was built to serve the needs of the Irish who lived in the surrounding “Corky Row” neighborhood. Fall River was no longer a Yankee Protestant town.
With the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, Fall River – now with a population of nearly 18,000 – was poised for even greater growth. The nation was at peace. The second wave of the Industrial Revolution had begun; railroads, steamships, better manufacturing equipment, and a new technology, electricity, gave it momentum.
All these innovations made possible larger mills, greater output, and increased economic success. Since this industrialization happened mostly in the Northeast, and because the South – ravaged by the war – remained largely agricultural, it was necessary to transport raw cotton a long distance for processing into fabric. Fall River, along with other New England cities like Pawtucket, Lowell and New Bedford, became the destination for that cotton. Fall River’s mills hummed 24 hours a day, creating fabric that, for the most part, was sent to New York City to be fashioned into clothing. Eventually Fall River’s 100 or so mills turned out as astonishing 1900 miles of cloth a day.
The mill owners found it relatively easy to work with the Irish since both groups spoke English (though their accents were quite different). By this time, however, the wave of Irish immigrants had somewhat slowed; Ireland could no longer satisfy the manpower needs of Fall River’s growing industries. The mill owners turned to the north for help. The result: A tide of French Canadians began to pour southward into New England’s textile cities. Fall River’s cultural fabric was about to change dramatically once more.
THE FRENCH CANADIANS ARRIVE
In the early 1860s, very few French Canadians lived in Fall River. Some of the more adventurous ones volunteered to fight for the North in the American Civil War, then settled in the U.S. afterward. By 1868 about 100 French Canadian families called Fall River their home. Within one year that number skyrocketed to 500-600 families, with about 3,000 people.
Why the sudden increase? There were many reasons. Canada was suffering from economic problems. It was becoming dfficult to make money at farming: the short growing season, rocky soil, and antiquated system of land ownership along with the shifts in priorities that the Industrial Revolution created, all conspired against French-Canadian farmers.
Moreover, the longstanding discord between Canadians of French and British descent – a friction that went all the way back to England’s conquest in 1763 of France’s Canadian territories and that still exists to some extent in today’s Quebec – made relocating to the U.S. an appealing option. After all, as late as 1815 the US and Great Britain had been at war, with France as America’s friend and ally – That was only 50 years past. The French Canadians and mill representatives trusted that Americans would welcome French-speaking people to their lands; the Irish, they thought, would be especially sympathetic. French Canadians, like the Irish, had struggled with Britain and were Catholic.
Recruiters sent by mill owners assured French Canadians of a friendly – and lucrative – reception. Quebecois (and, to a lesser extent, French-speaking people from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and parts of Ontario) discovered that the wages they’d earn in New England would be far greater than what they could make in Canada. They also realized that their children – and in French-Canadian families there were lots of them – could also bring in additional salaries for the household. At that time, the U.S. had yet to enact fully the child labor laws we take for granted today. (This would change very soon, though, with Massachusetts leading the way.)
with the opening of rail service between the U.S. and Canada in the 1850s and 60s, it took less than a day for a French Canadian to reach the great New England mill towns. In some cases the mill representatives even paid their train fare (about $15). (Prior to rail, Quebecers had to ride wagons or walk beside them along dirt trails to get to Southern New England.)
Being relatively conservative, French Canadians didn’t “bet the farm.” The typical pattern: The household’s father and/or oldest child would make the first move to the States to try things out and perhaps return later to Canada with money to put back into the family and farm. Once in Fall River, they found it relatively easy to find employment in mills or in support industries, like construction (with all the tenement housing, retail buildings, factories, and roads being built for the thousands of new residents pouring in, cities like Fall River had become boomtowns). Typically a relative or former neighbor from Quebec would lodge them and help them find a job.
Usually things went so well for these heads of famity that the idea of returning to Canada was delayed or evaporated altogether, with the rest of the family moving down to New England instead. (That’s why, to this day, many two- or three-family houses in Fall River have an upstairs attic, with a half dozen bedrooms off a central corridor. This is where most of the children or newly arrived relatives slept.) Only a few French Canadians decided to move back to Canada.
In fact, the tide of French Canadian immigrants to America became so great that their absence further undermined an already-ailing Canadian economy. In response, the Canadian government offered French Canadians free train tickets to come back to visit their native soil and rediscover the wonderful places, people, and things they had left behind; perhaps that original intent to reside only briefly in the States, then return to Canada, had been the right one.
The idea backfired. Fall Riverites and others took up the Canadian offer. They showed up in fine clothing, wearing impressive watches and jewelry, their wallets thick with U.S. dollars. They were walking advertisements for emigrating to America.
And it was not only Canadians who were driving Fall River’s population upward. By 1876 enough Portuguese immigrants, mostly Azorean, had arrived in Fall River to justify a church for them. This church eventually evolved into what we now know as Santo Christo Parish. Already, small communities of Polish, Italians, Ukrainians, and Lebanese were forming, too. The Irish continued to arrive, as well, though in fewer numbers than before.
Like the French Canadians who came to Fall River, each ethnic group wanted its own church, with services and support in their own language. The result was that parishes overlapped. This is the reason why Fall River had so many Catholic churches. For example, St. Louis, a now-closed Irish church, and St. Stanislaus, a Polish church, were only a few blocks from St. Anne. Santo Christo was just a few streets further. To put it another way, in a three-family house on Rockland Street, the family on the first floor might belong to St. Anne, the one on the second floor to St. Louis, and the one on the third to Santo Christo with the house being located next door to St. Stanislaus.
Due to the influx of workers from abroad, the population of Fall River nearly tripled in 12 years, from 13,000 in 1860 to 35,000 in 1872. Fall River was a noteworthy city, a success story, one proudly calling itself America’s textile capital. Thousands of visitors passed through or stayed a few days in Fall River, including some of the world’s most famous people. (After all, THE way to travel between New York City and Boston was via a combination of rail and the Fall River Line steamships.) A railroad station at the corner of Davol Street and Broadway, and a later version farther north on Davol, were hubs of activity.
The mill owners couldn’t be happier with their industrious workers from foreign lands. They took special note of the French Canadians, if only because of their vast numbers: by the close of the 19th century, they constituted nearly 39 percent of Fall River’s population. As the Boston Herald commented in its August 17, 1890 issue:
“If…the 20,000 French Canadians of Fall River were transported to a desert island, there is not the shadow of a doubt that they would immediately undertake the construction of a city and would govern themselves wisely…”
Just about the only liability the French Canadians and other immigrant groups had: most of them spoke only a little English. At first this seemed to be a minor issue. But, it would soon ignite an unexpected conflict and would lead to a frenzy of activity that would forever shape Fall River. It would even involve the Pope…