Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
Above: Lowell in its manufacturing heyday. Source: UMass Lowell
Introduction: Lowell before the French
Everyone knows the story of Lowell's original workers, Yankee-farm girls who worked in the textile mills to earn a little money before returning to rural farms to get married. Introduced in 1826 upon the founding of Lowell, this system of labor collapsed when destitute Irish immigrants poured into the area following the Potato Famine. These poor Irish provided cheaper labor under worse conditions than the mill girls could ever tolerate.
A few decades after their arrival in Lowell and other cities, the Irish had established a foothold, basically creating the Catholic Church in New England along the way. They also began to participate successfully in local politics. By 1882, Lowell had an Irish-American mayor. In the Merrimack Valley and elsewhere, later generations of immigrants, usually Roman Catholic, had to contend with Irish dominance of key institutions in the Church and the local government. This will be covered in other blog posts.
The first immigrant group after the Irish in the Merrimack Valley were the French-Canadians. They are also the only immigrant group to arrive by train.
French Canadian immigrants had been crossing the border into the United States since the 1840s, searching for better farming conditions and settling along the northern reaches of New York State, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, where in some towns they comprised the majority of the population by the time of the Civil War.
However, after the Civil War, migration patterns focused on New England's growing manufacturing centers. French-Canadians ultimately were concentrated in Fall River, Lowell, Manchester (N.H.), Woonsocket (R.I.), New Bedford, Holyoke, Worcester, Lewiston (Me.), Biddeford (Me.) and a few lesser manufacturing towns. (Source: The French Canadians in New England, by William MacDonald, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Apr., 1898), pp. 245-279, Oxford University Press.)
Lowell had a total population of approximately 41,000 in 1870, of which 3,000 were French-Canadian, compared to around 20,000 Irish. By 1881, there were approximately 10,000 French Canadians, showing the tremendous rate of immigration. By 1909, the number of French Canadians had nearly caught up to the number of Irish (including in both cases children of immigrants): 20,000 versus 22,300. (Source: The Record of a City: A Social Survey of Lowell, Massachusetts, George Frederick Kenngott, Macmillan Company, 1912)
In Lowell, like elsewhere, French Canadian immigrants adhered to the ethos of la survivance:
(From French Canadians in Massachusetts Politics, 1885-1915: Ethnicity and Political Pragmatism by Ronald Arthur Petrin, Balch Institute Press, 1990)
La Surivance led the French-Canadians to insist upon their own institutions, and it ended up being the Oblates (and a number of other French-speaking religious orders such as the Grey Sisters of Ottawa) who provided them.
Below: French-Canadian women at work in a Lowell hosiery factory, 1880.
Left : The heart of Little Canada, Hall & Aiken Streets, Lowell, 1923. Source: Lowell Sun
The "Little Canada" of Lowell was pretty much one of these "dismal proletarian districts". It was situated along the Merrimack River in central Lowell, behind the textile mills around Aiken, Austin, Cheever, Hall, Tucker, Ward, Ford, Decatur, Race, Merrimack and Moody Streets.
Below: The memorial plaque for Little Canada (Le Petit Canada), the core French-Canadian neighborhood of Lowell, Aiken Street. The neighborhood was demolished for urban renewal in 1964.
It was into this area (and nearby French-Canadian neighborhoods) that the Oblates came in 1868, to serve the religious and cultural needs of the burgeoning French-Canadian population of Lowell.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) was founded in 1816 by Saint Eugene de Mazenod, a French priest born in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. In 1841, Canada became their first foreign mission. With steady reinforcement from France and Canadian recruits, they moved up the Ottawa Valley, and in 1845 into the North-West, where the establishment of the Catholic Church in western Canada was largely Oblate work.
Coming to the United States and Lowell
By 1853, the Oblates were following the French speaking population into the United States, setting up a mission in Plattsburg, New York, followed by one in Buffalo, New York. By 1857, they oversaw St. Joseph's in Burlington, Vermont.
In December 1867, Father Florent Vandenberghe, provincial superior of the Oblates, based in Montreal, met Archbishop John J. Williams of the Archdiocese of Boston while attending the dedication of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington, Vermont. Arrangements were made for two Oblate priests to be sent to Lowell at the invitation of the Archdiocese, to minister to the growing French Canadian population.
Below: Father Florent Vandenberghe of Montreal, Provincial Superior of The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who directed two Oblate priests to Lowell in 1868
Founding of St. Joseph's and Immaculate Conception churches (both still active today)
Following their conversation in Burlington, Archbishop Williams had been active, and found a former Unitarian Church on Lee Street, Lowell, for which he entered negotiations, hoping it would be the future site of the Oblates' parish. In March, when weather conditions improved, Father Vandenberghe traveled with Bishop Williams to view the site, but expressed some concern about the ability of the small French Canadian population there to sustain a parish of its own. This prompted Bishop Williams to propose that the Oblates establish two parishes, the second an English-speaking parish, to which Father Vandenberghe agreed.
Father Vandenberghe sent two priests, Fathers Andre Garin and Father Lucien Lagier, who arrived in Lowell on April 18, 1868. Within a few short weeks, the Canadian Catholics contributed enough money for a down payment on the Lee Street Church, and dedicated it to St. Joseph on May 3, 1868, the city's first French-speaking parish. The second parish agreed to was temporarily located at St. John Chapel, initially part of St. John Hospital (then at the corner of Fayette and Stackpole Streets and now part of "the Saints" campus of Lowell General Hospital), and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. (Source: Oblates Come to Lowell to Serve French Canadian Catholics, by Thomas Lester, Friday, January 19, 2018
Below: Immaculate Conception, East Merrimack Street, Lowell (rebuilt after fire 1912-1916). Source: Wikipedia
Despite the successful foundation of two churches, it was soon determined that the heart of the neighborhood lacked a church. The aforementioned Father Garin made it his life's work to establish a church there, dedicated to St. Jean Baptiste.
Below: Fr. Andre-Marie Garin, OMI, "L'inoubliable Fondateur"
"Father Garin was a native of France, and a missionary worthy of comparison with Marquette, Breboeuf, and others whom that ever-vital nation has sent to our shores. He had traveled by canoe and snow-shoe through Labrador, and on the coast of Hudson's Bay; had lived without food for forty-eight hours on an ice-floe; and had translated books into rare Indian tongues. His vigorous presence aroused the Canadians of Lowell." (from The History of the Catholic Church in the New England States, Volume I, by Rev William Byrne et al, 1899)
Like Father O'Donnell who basically founded the Augustinian presence in nearby Lawrence, Father Garin was a larger-than-life figure so needed by recent poor immigrant communities.
In 1869, Father Garin performed the first French language Mass in Lawrence, where the French speaking population still only numbered in the hundreds. In due course, another French-speaking religious order, the Marists, would take over the French parishes of Lawrence. That is the subject of another blog post.
In 1893, he was chosen as the delegate to the meeting of the General Chapter of the Oblates in France. Then he turned his attention to completing St. Jean Baptiste.
Establishment of St. Jean Baptiste
The new church was part of St. Joseph parish. "St. Joseph would be expanded several times in the following years, but never proved adequate for the burgeoning French-speaking population in the Lowell area. To solve this problem Father Garin hoped to build a new church, and in 1887 purchased land on Merrimack Street on which to do so, the eventual site of St. John the Baptist, dedicated on Dec. 13, 1896."
"Sadly, Father Garin would not live to see its completion, having died the year before on Feb. 16, 1895. At the time of his arrival in 1868, there were 1,200 French-speaking Catholics in Lowell, and by the time his new church was completed, it was responsible for serving close to 20,000." (Source: Byrne history, 1899)
The church was located in the heart of Little Canada and served as the focal point of the community for decades. "St. John the Baptist's church, which is now the principal French church of Lowell, being fully as large as St. Joseph's, and much more imposing, fronts on Merrimack street, somewhat west of St. Joseph's. It is a bold Romanesque structure, built of granite, the prevalent material in Lowell public buildings.
A bronze statue in front immortalizes the resolute features of its founder, Father Garin." (Ibid.)
As noted by Byrne in his history of the Catholic Church in New England, "The French church is popular even among the Irish-Americans of Lowell, numbers of whom attend its services. Attendance of Canadians, however, at the services in churches other than their own is rare."
With the destruction of the Little Canada neighborhood in 1964, following years of population decline as post-war populations moved to the suburbs, in 1993 St. Jean Baptiste was closed by the Archdiocese. It was then resurrected as the sole Spanish-language "national parish" church in New England (see below), which was closed in 2004. The structure still stands and is being converted to an event space.
Below: Recent Photo of St. Jean Baptiste, now an event space. Source:
Creation of a separate OMI Province in 1883
"This high esteem which the Oblates enjoyed here, and the success of their missionary tours, addressed to the needs of French and English congregations elsewhere, led to the creation, in 1883, of a separate province of the Order for the United States, with its headquarters at Lowell. In the same year a novitiate was founded in the suburb of Tewksbury." (covered below)(source: Byrne 1899 history)
Establishment of Notre Dame de Lourdes in 1908
"At the dawn of the [twentieth] century, the need for a church in another section of the city became acute. Many of the Franco-Americans who lived some distance from St. Joseph’s Church were abandoning their religious practices. Despite their relative poverty, the people organized and founded Notre Dame de Lourdes parish in 1908 after restoring an abandoned Baptist temple. A new and modern church complex was constructed in 1962. For many years, while serving the community, the parish was greatly involved with ministry to the many immigrant minorities in the area. A special center reached out to the needs of the many Southeast Asians who have been migrating to Lowell since the war in Vietnam. The church was an active member of many interfaith social programs that reached out to the needy of that part of the city. (Editor’s Note: Following the reconfiguration of the Archdiocese of Boston, Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes was suppressed in 2004.)"
Establishment of Ste Jeanne d’Arc Parish in 1922
"St. Jeanne d’Arc Parish was established on December 30,1922, by William Cardinal O’Connell. The Oblates of St. Joseph Parish had been ministering to the Franco-Americans on the Pawtucketville side of the Merrimack River area since 1920. A small school, built in 1910 by Father Campeau to accommodate younger children, was expanded and transformed into a school and chapel. The first Mass was celebrated there on the third Sunday of April 1921. By a decree of the General House, dated January 30, 1923, Father Léon Lamothe was appointed first Superior and the new residence was officially established.
A new stone church was completed in 1929. Later, a new slanted roof was added to improve the outside lines of the structure, and the interior of the church has been completely renovated in conformity with the latest liturgical requirements. (Editor’s Note: As a result of the reconfiguration process, the Archdiocese of Boston ordered the suppression of Ste-Jean d’Arc parish in 2004. Ste-Jeanne d’Arc grammar school, administered by the sisters of Charity of Ottawa is still active and currently operates under the auspices of St. Rita’s Parish.)"
The Oblates in Billerica - St. Andrews
"Before Saint Andrew’s Parish was established [in North Billerica], thousands of Irish people, due to political oppression along with the great potato crop failure of the 1840’s and 1850’s, [had] made the trek to New England in order to seek jobs in the nearby Talbot and Faulkner mill complexes. They brought with them few material possessions, but they did bring with them a sound and living faith. These Billerica Catholics had to walk about five miles to the nearest Catholic church in Lowell to worship. In 1868, the remarkable Father Andre Garin of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate established a mission parish for the town of Billerica. He helped the small congregation arrange to buy the now-abandoned Universalist church. After the purchase, they moved it to Mill Street, now known as Rogers Street, and placed it under the patronage of the Apostle Saint Andrew. In the end, $4000.00 had been spent; but the people finally had their own church.
For forty years, Saint Andrew’s Parish was in the care of the Oblate Fathers. They would come in from Lowell, at least once a month, to celebrate Mass and handle all pastoral matters. Some of these priests served for but a few months, while others remained for several years. In 1890, Father James Maloney, O.M.I. realized the need for enlarged facilities to accommodate the increased number of parishioners. His program of renovation and expansion was carried out with the physical as well as the financial help of the people. Through their generosity and selflessness, the dedicated people managed to complete a $6,910.44 renovation that increased the size of the church by one third. Imagine the sacrifices that were made considering that the average daily wage was about 85 cents!"
The Oblates in Tewksbury
Above: The Former Oblate Fathers Novitiate
In 1883, the Oblates in Lowell founded a Novitiate, an institution typical of any Catholic religious order, in which Novices are trained and decide whether they are called to the order, either as priests or as lay members (monks and nuns). These days, it is a retirement home for Oblate priests from around North America.
The Oblates and Spanish-speaking Catholics of Lowell, 1970-2004
When the first wave of non-English speaking Catholics arrived with the French-Canadians, these French-language Catholics were able to bring religious orders from Canada such as the Oblates and the Marists, to provide French language instruction. Subsequently, in the 1890s through the 1920s, the archdiocese allowed the formation of "national parishes" dedicated to the needs of a particular ethnic group, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and what have you, although they were typically run by diocesan priests of Irish background.
After World War II, the "national parish" practice largely ended as these immigrant groups all became assimilated and many moved to suburbs, leading to the closure of ethnic parishes in inner cities.
When Puerto Rican and other hispanic immigrants began arriving in the Merrimack Valley in the early 1970s, it triggered a debate within the Archdiocese: do we establish a separate Spanish-language national parish?
Eventually the answer was: no. Integration was seen as more favorable --although (begrudging?) accommodations were made in allowing "basement chapels" to be formed where worship was conducted in Spanish.
The sole exception to this rule was a Spanish-language parish in Lowell, Nuestra Seniora del Carmen, in the former St. Jean Baptiste church.