CHAPTER 2: FALL RIVER AND IMMIGRATION
At the end of the 1860s, it seemed that Fall River’s demand for fresh labor would never end. It turned into a “chicken or the egg” phenomenon: mills were being built, more immigrants arrived to work in them, more mills were built, more immigrants arrived. This trend would continue for decades, to the point where Fall River’s population would eventually expand to well over 100,000 people – something that would have been inconceivable to settlers of the 1860s.
All this growth was not without problems. An entire infrastructure of roads, public
transportation, schools, water distribution, sewage and trash disposal, fire and police
and other public services had to be created – and fast. The private sector responded to
this growth, too: construction companies, banks, stores, and other businesses sprouted
up quickly, responding to this demand and generating thousands of new jobs and, for
a few, swift wealth.
But one need was somewhat more difficult to deal with: spiritual support. Most of the
“city fathers” – including the mill owners and other business leaders – were Protestant,
as were their clergy. But almost all of the new immigrants were Roman Catholic.
Where could they worship?
In 1855, St. Mary’s Church opened to serve the first arrivals of Irish lmmigrants. But
what of the newly arrived French Canadians, who couldn’t speak or understand
English? In the early 1860s the problem seemed minor: So few French families lived
in Fall River. That would change, though, and soon.
At this point Fall River was part of the Boston Catholic Diocese, which sent a French-
speaking Father Antoine Derbuel to St. Mary’s to tend to the Canadian immigrant
needs. He stayed only briefly and was replaced by Father Oliver Verdier, who
remained for only four months. A third priest, father Michel LeBreton, followed. He
stayed only a month. (No historical documents explain this rapid turnover.)
These three priests usually held services in a small structure next to St. Mary’s, on the
corner of Rodman and Second streets. It was called the Chapel of St. John the Baptist
(Quebec’s patron saint). This solution, however, was only temporary: within a year,
the congregation of French-speaking families had swe11ed from 100 to 600. Thousands
of French Canadians now lived in Fall River. More were coming.
The situation was becoming uneasy. There was already some tension between the Irish
and the French – the very opposite of what some had expected. Many Irish believed,
understandably, that these newcomers were taking jobs away from them (which was
rarely the case, since Fall River’s booming economy was generating more jobs than
there were people to fill them). Moreover, Canadian immigrants, though Catholic,
had a very different history, culture and language than did the Irish. Yes, both the Irish
and the French Canadians shared the same religion, but to many Irish, that was about
it. And French Canadians might eventually outnumber the Irish at St. Mary’s. To the
Irish, who considered St. Mary’s their parish, this was troubling.
The French Canadians had a similar set of concerns. Once they outgrew their
chapel, the only choice was to attend regular services at St. Mary’s. Unless a
French-speaking priest was delivering a special Mass for them, they had to listen to a Mass
that few of them could understand.
Church officials in Boston were concerned, too. Already, several non-Catholic
evangelists, including French-speaking ones, were trying to make inroads with the
disgruntled French Canadians. Something had to be done, fast. The solution came
ST. ANNE PARISH
The fourth French-speaking priest to serve St. Mary’s French-speaking congregation
had an unwieldy name: Reverend Paul Romain Louis Adrien De Montaubricq. Born in
France and descended from a noble family, he seemed an improbable choice. Could a
European priest with an aristocratic upbringing and a cultured French accent
successfully address the needs of blue-collar, ex-Canadian farmers?
He did. For nearly a decade he tended his flock, bringing a continuity of religion,
ambition and spirit that his congregation so desperately wanted. Yes, some
parishioners felt uncomfortable with his cultured ways (as probably he did with
theirs). But they fiercely supported his immediate goal: to establish a parish just for
From the start, Montaubricq had the support of church officials. Like his predecessors,
he was at first assigned to St. Mary’s. On behalf of the Boston Diocese he acquired a
block of land within the boundaries of Hunter, William, Gran, and Hope streets. (Two
lots within the block remained in private hands and were not part of the purchase.)
At the time, most French Canadians lived in the hillside homes, tenements, and
apartments to the north of and down the hill from South Park (now called Kennedy
Park). The new church’s location was perfect for them.
The church would be built on Hunter Street. (Today two multi-family houses, at 99
and 101 Hunter, mark the approximate site of the church’s entrance.) The structure
would be about 100 feet long by 50 feet wide, large enough to accommodate the
French-Canadian congregation for their Sunday Masses.
Little did Father Montaubricq realize, though, that a near-tragic event would,
temporarily, delay his beloved project.
THE FIRST CHURCH
On March 20, 187O, Father Montaubricq presided over a ceremony to bless the
cornerstone of the church. Hundreds of people attended, many of whom stood or sat
on the staging that had been erected for the ceremony.
Unfortunately the platform’s base had been built earlier on frozen soil. By the day of
the ceremony, the soil had thawed and softened, making the stage’s foundation
unstable. In mid-ceremony this staging suddenly gave way. More than 100 people
were injured, with 30 suffering bone fractures.
There’s a longstanding tale that the original name for this new church was to have
been St. Clotilde. As the story goes, when the stage collapsed, Father Montaubricq
spontaneously called out to St. Anne for help. Since no one died from the accident, he
decided to name the parish after St. Anne. (St. Anne was the name of Jesus’s
grandmother and a saint especially venerated by French Canadians.)
However, research conducted in the 1990s by Father Pierre Lachance (an expert on the
history of St. Anne Parish) indicates that the name St. Anne appears in 1869 Boston
Diocese records, implying that the name had been chosen a year before the accident.
Eyewitness accounts of the disaster are contradictory. Did Father Montaubricq intend
to change the name from St. Anne to St. Clotilde, then reverse himself? Or is the story
a legend? We probably will never know.
The Hunter Street church opened in May 1870. The parish continued to grow. After
only two years, the church was expanded to 150 feet by 75 feet. It could now
accommodate 1,000 parishioners. (In the few exterior photographs that exist of this
church, it seems improbable that 1,000 could fit in the structure depicted. Yet that is
what the earliest historical records clearly indicate.)
In that same year, the Boston Diocese – which served most of New England – was
subdivided into several new dioceses. The Diocese of Providence was established and
Fall River became a part of it.
ST. ANNE PARISH GROWS
Father Montaubricq now presided over a remarkably dynamic parish. He acquired or
built structures all around his church, including a rectory, a convent, a school, a
school annex, a home for religious brothers, and more. In some cases, one building –
say, the school – would later be put to another use (e.g., a school became a convent).
All of these structures are now gone, except two: a house at 88 Grant Street and the
red brick school building on Hope Street, constructed much later (1891).
The area around St. Anne began to be called “Little Canada,” and for good reason. The
multifamily homes that encircled the church were mostly filled by people from
Quebec. A network of French-speaking neighborhood businesses arose to serve their
needs. It was as if an entire French-Canadian village had suddenly materialized in Fall
As more people arrived, Fall River’s growth accelerated. The core of the city became so
thick with tenements, businesses, and mills that it became necessary for mill owners to
look for thinly settled, less expensive land. “Villages” in Fall River’s outlying areas
appeared, like those at Globe Corners, the Maplewood Park area, and the Flint. Many
French Canadians settled in what were then suburbs of the ‘city’.
But there was a problem. How could they get to St. Anne Church and its schools?
Many of them resided a mile or more from the city’s only French church. Cars had yet
to be invented. Streetcars were still horse-drawn and inadequate. And what would you
do during a rainstorm or, worse, a snowstorm?
For these reasons, St. Anne created outlying “missions” and built chapels, then
churches, to serve the needs of each village’s French-speaking population. The first was
Notre Dame de Lourdes, in the Flint, in 1874, followed by St. Matthieu’s in the city’s
“Bowenville” North End (1886), Blessed Sacrament (then known as St. Dominic’s and then
St. Patrick’s) about a quarter-mile south of Globe Corners (1888) and St. Jean Baptiste in
the Maplewood district (1897). Eventually, each became a parish in its own right. Some of
Fall River’s other ethnic groups also created mission chapels, such as St. Stanislaus serving
the Polish immigrants in the Globe, which eventually evolved into ethnic parishes in
their own right.
THE “AFFAIRE” NOTRE DAME
In 1878 Father Montaubricq began to have health problems – not a surprise,
considering the pace his life had taken. He resigned as pastor, promising that he would
return some day return to St. Anne if his health improved. He moved back to France.
He did, in fact, return some years later, hoping to bulld a chapel near Globe Corners.
At that point, the diocese wasn’t ready to open a new parish. Father Montaubricq therafter
returned to France.
The diocese named Reverend Thomas Briscoe to replace Father Montaubricq. Of Irish
descent, Father Briscoe, thanks to his seminary studies in France, spoke very good
French. for nine years he served St. Anne, giving special attention to the parish’s
growing educational needs.
Some parishioners, however, continued to politic for a French-Canadian priest.
Providence Bishop Thomas Hendricken would not have been sympathetic to to their
cause. He had a very different philosophy (and apparently he also had a very direct,
blunt way of expressing it, as well). Bishop Hendricken was convinced that foreign
immigrants would never succeed until they spoke good English and acculturated
themselves to “American” ways.
French Canadians believed somewhat the opposite. Yes, they would accept and respect
their new homeland, but not at the expense of their heritage. They wished to preserve
their language and culture, to prevent it from just rusting away. This is one reason why
they wanted their own schools, where children were taught in both French and
English. A slogan of that time sums up the passion of their feelings and how interlaced
their religion and culture were: “He who loses his language loses his faith.”
History, though, has proved Bishop Hendricken to be, to some extent, right. Becoming
part of America’s melting pot of cultures was indeed the key to success in the U.S. It
simply didn’t happen as quickly as he had hoped for. Assimilation can’t be
rushed. What actually occurs, over and again in America: the first generation of
immigrants clings to its original language, religion, cuisine, and culture; their children
become more Americanized, with English as their preferred language (they may
continue to understand and use their parents’ first language, though); their
grandchildren only know a few words of the original language and values.
So most descendants of ethnic groups do eventually melt into the American
mainstream, just as Bishop Hendricken expected. It takes a few generations, however,
for that to happen. For over a century, this pattern has applied to most waves of
immigrants to America. It certainly occurred in Fall River, where third and fourth
generations now carry French names yet know little about their heritage.
Bishop Matthew Harkins, who succeeded Hendricken in 1887, had a different
perspective. He supported ethnic diversity and tradition. That may have emboldened
three of St. Anne’s leading parishioners, who, that same year, journeyed to Providence
to see him. Armed with a 700-signature petition, the delegation asked that Harkins
assign a French-Canadian pastor to their parish. The bishop explained that very few
French-Canadian priests were available, but that he would still see what he could do.
Almost surely an event that had happened to his predecessor a few years before
weighed on Bishop Harkins’s mind. Fall River’s Notre Dame de Lourdes had become a
large, powerful parish in its own right. It even had a French-Canadian pastor, Father
Bedard, who served the parish from 1874 to 1884. His death, however, left a void that
was hard to fill. Fathers Patrick McGee and Owen Clarke – both French-speaking –
were assigned to lead the parish. But the parishioners weren’t happy. In fact they were
angry. They rebelled.
There are all sorts of stories about what happened – probably untrue – like the one
about parish ladies driving their new priests out of the rectory with their hatpins.
Another tale relates that when a delegation from Notre Dame visited Bishop
Hendricken to complain about having Irish priests, the Bishop sarcastically replied
that Fathers McGee and Clarke spoke better French than they did.
There’s no doubt, however, that the parishioners contacted the Vatican, no less, about
their displeasure. The last thing Bishop Hendricken wanted was for the Pope to
become involved in what was going on, no matter who was at fault. In 1885, he took
a bold action: he closed down Notre Dame church. (With subtle pressure from the
Vatican, it was reopened 10 months later. By then, things had calmed down.) A French
priest was eventually assigned to Notre Dame and the issue was resolved.
Would St. Anne’s larger congregation – emboldened by the Notre Dame affair – raise
the notch on their petitions for a French-Canadian priest? Bishop Harkins had to act
swiftly. The solution came from a totally unexpected source.
THE DOMINICANS ARRiVE
Despite the ethnic turbulence in Fall River, it is to Bishop Harkins’s credit that he
empathized with the French-Canadian desire for priests who could fully understand
their language, culture, traditions, and needs. But where to find them? His diocesan
priests were still mostly Irish. New French-Canadian parishes were sprouting up
everywhere. Who would lead them?
The solution came from Augustine Healy, Bishop of Portland, Maine, and a friend of
Bishop Harkins. In the Catholic Church, there are basically two kinds of priests:
diocesan (or “secular”) priests and those belonging to “Orders.” (An Order is a group
of priests and/or nuns who follow a somewhat different set of rules from “regular”
priests and who are often “specialists.” For example, the Dominicans were trained to
be skilled public speakers, thus the O.P. – Order of Preachers – following their names.) In
those days, priests who were part of an Order seldom tended to a church or its parish.
(Today, this is more common.)
ln 1877 the government of France took a harsh anti-religion posture. In 1880 they
evicted the Dominicans, among others, from their land. Monasteries were closed.
Priests set off to Spain, Italy and Germany, where more favorable conditions existed.
The French Dominican leadership had to be creative. They concluded that Canada and
the U.S. Northeast might eagerly welcome their priests and that this could be a very
positive, new, and productive direction for them to take. Bishop Healy knew of this,
too. He invited the French Dominicans to relocate a few of their priests to Lewiston,
Maine, another mill town where a large population of French Canadians resided. The
Dominicans agreed. Bishop Healy’s strategy worked.
Bishop Harkins – who had made tentative, failed efforts to attract priests from other
Orders – saw the success at Lewiston as an elegant, workable, and timely solution to St.
Anne’s situation. He had also heard that the Dominicans were adept at balancing
budgets, a skill that would be needed during this time of rapid expansion. So he
proposed to the French Dominicans that they take over St. Anne Parish. They agreed.
In November 1887, three Dominican priests and one Dominican brother left Lewiston
for Fall River. (Other newly-arrived French priests replaced them in Lewiston.)
That these Dominicans were already experienced in running an immigrant parish was
a plus. But almost surely they could not have foreseen that, within a decade or so, their
new St. Anne Parish would grow to become one of the most impressive success stories
in this, their new home, Fall River.