Child laborers, Lewiston, ca. 1920Item 67543 info
Our sense of self and identity is often drawn from our childhood experiences.
Until the late 20th century, for young Franco-Americans, the journey into adulthood meant becoming accustomed to the discrimination which their parents were exposed to, often from an early age. From the attitudes of their English-speaking neighbors, Franco-Americans were taught to think of themselves as Petits Pains ('Little Breads'), who were relegated to a lower position in society.
This attitude was impressed onto them at a young age, by teachers who scolded them for their poor English, and by the conspicuous lack of successful Franco role models in the community. The hardships suffered by a difficult upbringing also ingrained certain values in the Franco-American community - particularly faith, family and a strong work ethic.
Swimming pool, St. Joseph's Orphanage, Lewiston, 1963Item 67732 info
Yet a Franco childhood was not all discrimination and hard work. The early experiences of many young Francos also transmitted knowledge of their culture and heritage - through traditional cuisine, music and leisure activities. The paradox at the heart of the Franco experience in Maine is that as the community became more socially and economically successful, members were less reliant on these traditional values.
The following exhibit explores a variety of childhood experiences, and the ways in which outside forces would alter them throughout the 20th century.
Wedding party, Lewiston, 1897Item 18378 info
The first priority for many new arrivals, especially those with families, was accommodation. Sometimes the male head of a family would travel ahead alone to find work in a new city, perhaps staying with a friend or relative until he found work and could have his family join him.
Unfortunately, the influx of immigrants stretched the capacity of existing housing stock, and priced many mill workers out of the market. Moreover, many existing residents were reluctant to lease apartments to the new arrivals. Recognizing the shortage of housing stock, many mills rented apartments directly to workers. After a while, some Francos themselves went into the real estate business to cater to their compatriots.
Nonetheless, accommodations, especially in the 19th century, were often poorly-maintained and overcrowded. This photo illustrates the causes of difficult living conditions for Franco-Americans - a combination of large families and small apartments.
St. Mary's School, Lewiston, 1909Item 67533 info
Franco-American children, like their modern-day counterparts, were defined by their experiences at school, and nowhere else were the unique challenges faced by the Franco population on display. Wherever communities of Franco-Americans coalesced (in so-called 'Petits Canadas'), French-speaking religious orders were the major providers of social services, including education. The nuns and monks were sent, either from Canada or France to allow Franco children to receive schooling in their native tongue.
St. Peter's School, Lewiston, 1937Item 67530 info
While typical stories of Catholic education focus on the harsh disciplinary methods employed, these are mostly based on the memories of students. However, the experience was also difficult for the teaching staff, many of whom were young nuns with little educational training. In 1904, one Dominican Sister, arriving in a new country from her native France, recalled her dismay at the ‘American Practice’ of employing corporal punishment. In her first interactions with her new students, she describes them as ‘rude’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘uncultured soil’. The large size of parochial school classes (42 students was not uncommon), further demonstrates the challenges faced by both teachers and students.
Schoolyard sports, St. Peter's School, Lewiston, 1925Item 67532 info
By the early 20th century several schools operated in Lewiston-Auburn under the auspices of the local catholic parishes. Although they had originally offered education completely in French, their curricula gradually shifted to include more English-language lessons, while Maine’s public schools prohibited the use of French outside foreign-language classes in 1919.
Parents were keen to have their children integrate into Anglophone society, and children were being exposed to more English-language culture through new media such as radio and television. Those children whose parents ran a store or local business, were also exposed to English more regularly as the Franco and Anglo populations became less segregated in the 1940s and 50s.
This photograph shows a group of children at a French parochial school thoroughly Americanized through their adoption of American sports such as baseball and football.
Santa Claus at the Healey Asylum, Lewiston, c.1950Item 67544 info
The church provided a variety of social services for Children, especially the Sisters of Charity of St Hyacinthe ('the Grey Nuns')
Especially needy children were often boarded and educated at the two local 'orphanages' (although many boarders were not, in fact, orphans). The Healey Asylum (for boys) and St Joseph's Orphanage (for girls) served thousands of children between 1893 and 1972.
Christmas at St Joseph's Orphanage, Lewiston, 1946Item 67731 info
However, the small staff at the orphanages were faced with large numbers of children and very limited resources (a ratio of up to 100 children to every sister); deprivations and the use of corporal punishment were commonplace.
These difficulties increased as the 20th century continued, and funding for church institutions was harder to come by. Several factors contributed to the decline of both the parish schools and institutions like the orphanages - state and federal services began to replace the church-provided safety net for families; parents were keener to integrate their children into English-speaking environments, and the use of family planning methods greatly reduced the size of Franco families.
Camp Tekakwitha brochure, Leeds, ca. 1940Item 67728 info
In the summer, children of Lewiston-Auburn's Catholic parishes had the opportunity to go to French-speaking summer camps like Camp Don Bosco, in Lovejoy, Maine or Camp Tekakwitha (pictured), in Leeds, Maine.
For many children, this was a chance to escape the heat (and smell) of the cities and experience the 'great outdoors.' The heyday of these camps was in the 1950s, after which increased automobile ownership allowed families to take their own vacations independently.
Camp Tekakwitha now operates as a privately-run organization, and is the only French-language camp in the United States. It caters primarily to children from Quebec.
Petits Chanteurs de Saint Pierre, Poland Spring, 1954Item 67727 info
Music formed a significant part of school curricula and of parish activities in the catholic churches. Since the parishes also ran local schools, there were natural opportunities to form youth choirs. The Petits Chanteurs (‘Little Singers’, pictured) was one such organization. It was formed in 1945 by Brother Raymondien, of St Peter’s School, and composed of boys from fifth-eighth grades. In its first 15 years it enrolled some 750 different boys and performed internationally.
Jalbert Family Orchestra, Lewiston-Auburn, ca.1920Item 67540 info
Of all their cultural traditions, Franco-Americans especially cherished their musical heritage, and in an era before television or radio, music formed the main means of entertainment in most households (especially songs that were less suitable for the ears of the local monseigneur!)
Lacking copious free time or venues in which to congregate, Francos typically held house parties for their friends and neighbors, with large groups gathered in the kitchen to sing. When instruments were hard to come by, kitchen implements, such as spoons, and even washboards or pans, were called into service.
Hockey game, Hill Mill, Lewiston, ca. 1940Item 67542 info
The other great contribution of Franco-Americans to cultural life in the United States was the popularity of hockey, the Canadian national game. In mill towns like Lewiston, hockey was popular long before it was embraced state-wide. In the 1950s, the St Dominic High School team had so few opponents of their own age that they scheduled matches against the college teams of Colby, Bates and Bowdoin!
Hockey brought a community spirit which helped to alleviate the pessimism caused by the worsening economic atmosphere after 1945. When St Dominic’s hockey arena was destroyed by fire in 1956, it was seen as a disaster for a community that was already suffering from the closure of manufacturing industries in the area.
The community strongly supported a successor to the St Dominic Area, the Androscoggin Colisée, which until 2011 was home to the Lewiston Maineacs, a member of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
St Peter's School, Lewiston, Class of 1910Item 74893 info
The experience of Franco-American children in the 20th century is not unique; in fact many of the themes represented here apply to other working-class communities or immigrant groups. However, what makes the story of the Petit Pains unusual is that the conditions which created the experience are still vivid for many in Maine’s Franco community.
In Lewiston-Auburn and other cities in Maine, a French-speaking community with a basis in industrial manufacturing persisted into the 1960s, when a confluence of changes broke apart the social fabric of that community. Now those who were children in the 1930s through 1960s, and were shaped by those experiences are seniors, representing a large part of Maine’s population.
The experience of Franco-American children is not only relevant to understand their world view, but also to inform the education and assimilation of today’s generation of new Mainers.