in Vermont and Winooski

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Singing a traditional song.  Photo courtesy The Burlington Free Press.

Although records are few, what evidence there is shows that most of the early French-Canadian emigrants came to the northern and western areas of Vermont with the major concentration in and around Burlington. By the 1850s, the influx was so great that if it were not for the French-Canadian immigration, the state would actually have registered a decline in its total population. During the ten years from 1850 to 1860, the French-Canadian population of Chittenden County went from 2,904 to 4,308, nearly a fifty per cent increase.

In Colchester in 1860, there were 252 French-Canadians in the labor force. Of those, 76 were employed in the Winooski textile mills; the rest were farmers or farm hands, tradesmen, servants, or laborers. In 1867 the Winooski population of 1,745 included 855 French-Americans. By 1890, half the population of Winooski Falls was of Quebec extraction; in 1891 the Franco-American population there was 2,900, almost ten per cent of all the Canadians in Vermont. By 1916 the number was down to 2,800, but in 1931 there were 3,200 French-speaking people in Winooski. The 1970 census shows a French-speaking population in Winooski of more than ten per cent of the total residents; in 1990, 54.8% of the residents listed their ancestry as French or French-Canadian.

Whether they were in Vermont temporarily--to earn enough money to pay off their mortgages in Quebec--or permanently, the French-Canadians started to establish a presence in 1839 when they began publishing a French-language newspaper, the Patriote Canadien in Burlington. Although that venture was short lived, another, more successful paper, the Protecteur Canadien, was started in St. Albans in 1868. In 1850, the first French-speaking Roman Catholic parish in New England, St. Joseph’s, was established in Burlington. Among the petitioners were many families from Winooski, who traveled there each Sunday for mass.

Finally, in 1870 with the building of St. François-Xavier parish, Winooski got its own church. There were 270 families and 30 single adults registered at St. Francis in 1873; by 1900 there were 400 families and 47 single adults.

According to David Blow, "whatever intercourse existed between the French and the Yankees" during the second half of the 1800s " was of a business or political nature. It was not social." To fill the social gap, several mutual aid societies were formed in Winooski: Le Société de Secours Mutuel St. Jean-Baptiste de Winooski, founded in 1877, and Le Société Mutuelle de Saint Pierre de Winooski, founded in 1885, were the two most influential. Although the initial purpose of these groups was to help the sick, bury the dead, and promote overall mutual benevolence, they evolved into social clubs and community centers. Blow says that the St. Pierre Society’s raison d’être was "for the purpose of intellectual improvement...[to] collect and hold a library for the exclusive use of its members." Both groups had large halls filled with tables and chairs where members could congregate after work or on weekends to swap gossip, reminisce, or catch up on the news of the community.

Political clubs began forming during the mid-1880s and usually met in members’ homes. The members, who were required to become United States citizens, were sensitive because of their political awareness to the need to reconcile conflicts between the immigrant group and the surrounding community, and they took on that role. The immigrants who went into business also acquired a certain amount of influence within their own group.

The Catholic Church in Vermont, however, was not impressed. A 1908 letter from the Bishop reports: "As to the prominence and influence of French-Canadians, the claim that they possess either, is misleading. Good people and devoted, yes. But they havenot (sic) the education or the other qualities for prominence and influence, either in Church or state."

Despite its disregard for French-Canadians (or perhaps because of it) the Church allowed establishment of and funded a Catholic school in Winooski in the early 1860s which was run by the Sisters of Providence. But although the vast majority of students were French-speaking, the Bishop insisted the school be bilingual. In 1908 the Bishop reported that "the people do not want French spoken in the parishes, except in a very few places, such as Winooski..." He went on to say that "in a very few years, there shall be little or not (sic) French spoken in Vermont, unless in...Winooski...because they have French schools." 


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