Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/French Catholics in the United States

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The first Bishop of Burlington, the Right Reverend Louis de Goesbriand, in a letter dated 11 May, 1869, and which appeared in "Le Protecteur Canadien", a French newspaper then published at St. Albans, Vermont, made the following statement: "I am convinced from positive information, that when we say that there are 500,000 French-Canadians in the United States, the figures are far below the truth." The sources from which the late prelate drew his information are unknown to the writers of this article, but it is a fact that to-day the Diocese of Burlington has a Catholic population of 76,000 souls, of which 50,000 at least are of French Canadian birth on origin. It is also a fact that the French Canadian element has increased, both naturally and by immigration, to such an extent that it now numbers nearly 1,200,000 souls in the United States, that it has made its influence felt throughout the Eastern States, in all walks of life, and furthermore that, in point of numbers, it is the predominant element in several dioceses, and an important part of the population in many others. However, except in their own newspapers, or a few little-known books, scarcely anything had been said of the part taken by these immigrants in the civil and religious life of their new country, until, very recently, they took into their own hands the task of reviewing their history, of gathering statistics of their numbers, and of recording their achievements and the progress they have made in fifty years. The task is still far from complete, but enough has been done to demonstrate the progress of the French Canadians and their devotion to their Church and to their adopted country.

The immigration of French Canadians to the United States began before the War of American Independence (1775-83). French Canadians had then already immigrated to New England, and we find them in large numbers in the armies of Washington. After the war the American Congress, in recognition of their services and to prevent their being prosecuted in Canada on the charge of high treason, gave them land on the shores of Lake Champlain, where their descendants are still to be found. That concession of land, situated in the State of New York, has long been known as "the Refugees' Tract". In 1837, after the rebellion in the Province of Quebec, a new immigration to the Eastern States took place, to the State of Vermont, more particularly, where the "Patriots", vanquished in battle, sought refuge with their families. But the chief influx from French Canada to the United States took place after the Civil War. Notwithstanding the fact that they had at that time but few organized parishes, the French Canadians were here in sufficient numbers during the war to furnish 40,000 soldiers to the Union. The immigration at the close of the war has been ascribed to many causes, the most considerable of which are the unprecedented industrial prosperity that followed the Civil War and the inborn love of the French Canadian for travelling, together with the desire to earn the high wages and to share in the vast opportunities which the Republic offered to its citizens.

Some writers — and many of these in earnest — have given as the principal cause of this French Canadian immigration, three-fourths of which took place between 1865 and 1890, the necessity in which the farmers of the Province of Quebec found themselves of seeking a new home after leading a life of luxury and dissipation. Undoubtedly this was true of some, but the general moral character of the hundreds of thousands who crossed the border is the best proof that the true cause of this movement must be sought elsewhere. The Jesuit, Father Hamon, writing on this subject, does not hesitate to say: "The rapidity with which this immigration was accomplished, and the ease with which these Canadians transplanted into a foreign land, have immediately reconstructed the Catholic mould of the parish that made their strength in Canada; the energy shown by them in erecting churches and convents, in grouping themselves together, and in organizing flourishing congregations, supported within by all that nourishes Christian piety, protected without against pernicious influences by the strength of association, and a press generally well inspired; all these elements of Catholic life, organized within a quarter of a century in the very citadel of old Puritanism, seem to indicate a Providential action as well as a Providential mission, the importance of which the future alone will reveal."

Those who do not look higher than material considerations in studying the causes of national movements will not give much credence to this opinion of Father Hamon. Nevertheless it is to-day a fact recognized by noted economists, that the French Canadians, now better known in the Republic under the name of French Americans, are, as labourers and artisans, the most solid and reliable pillar of industry in New England. And New England has received within its borders, more than two-thirds of their total immigration. As Catholics, it is obvious that they have played a role no less important, as may easily be seen by the perusal of Catholic Directories. Father Hamon classifies the French Canadian immigration as temporary, fluctuating, and permanent. Figures show the relative importance of each of these classes and demonstrate the spirit which animated the whole movement. The temporary immigration comprised a class of farmers who came to the United States with the avowed intention of going back to their old homes as soon as they had saved enough money to clear their farms from mortgages and all other financial incumbrances. This class became less numerous from day to day; so much so, that it was practically unnoticeable, as early as 1880. In many cases the intention of returning to the old home was never carried out, Frequently this class, by revealing to their neighbours the opportunities offered across the border, induced many of them to follow in their footsteps. As to the fluctuating immigration, only a mere mention is necessary. Always on the move, from one country to the other, from city to city, from mill to mill, those who formed this class led that kind of life which relies, as Father Hamon says, on the Providence of God for its support. This roving class is still less numerous than the temporary group, and it is to be found not only in all classes of newcomers, but in settled populations as well. The permanent immigration has been the most numerous, and, naturally, the most substantial. It is these permanent French Canadian immigrants who have organized parishes and parochial schools, erected churches and convents, and now constitute the labouring power par excellence in all the industrial centres of New England. Most of them, if not all, came from the rural districts of Canada, especially from the Eastern townships, from the Dioceses of Trois Rivières and Rimouski, and from the Counties of Beauce, Bellechasse, and others on the borders. Their farms had become insufficient to support large families; in the Eastern townships their titles to the land they occupied were disputed, and they were forced to give up the fruit of many years of labour; they were the victims of the indifference shown by their Governments, both Provincial and Federal, towards colonization and the opening up of new farming districts. The increasing population was thus compelled by circumstances, to look elsewhere, for more land and greater opportunities. At the same time, the reports sent home by those who had taken part in the earlier immigration had widely advertised throughout the whole Province of Quebec, the material advantages of the United States. This migration was called at the time "the desertion of the Fatherland". But those who spoke thus were forgetful of the historical fact, that the French of America have from the very beginning felt perfectly at home in the whole northern part of the continent, on the soil of which their missionaries, their coureurs des bois, explorers, and warriors have left their footprints broadcast. In spite of all opposing efforts, hundreds of thousands of French Canadians, most of them farmers, between 1870 and 1890, left their rural occupation to adopt the more arduous life of the New England factories and the various industries of the Western States. This movement took place quietly, slowly, without creating any disturbance, and almost unnoticed. It was, in a certain sense, a repetition of that other movement which, advocated by Horace Greeley, sent toward the Golden Gate so many young men of the East.

Doubtless, this depopulation on a large scale was a great loss to Canada, where the emigrants might have founded families of colonists. But the nature of this emigration was such that it could not be checked by any special legislation. The movement had set in, and it was too late to forestall an event prepared by many years of economic conditions misunderstood or wilfully ignored. The stream had found its way across the borders, where new industries, phenomenal opportunities, and advantages unheard of before, were ready to absorb and utilize this new and valuable power of production.

In order to present a strictly accurate idea of the importance of the French American element, both numerically and from a Catholic standpoint, the following sources of information have been used for this article:—

  • (1) The Twelfth Census of the United States (1900);
  • (2) Local enumerations made in New England since 1900, and as late as the present year (1908); and
  • (3) The Catholic Directory of the United States.

The accompanying table, compiled from the first of these three sources, shows, first, the number of French Americans born in Canada and, secondly, this first class combined with those of whom at least one parent was born in Canada.

StateForeign-bornOf Foreign Parentage
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
New York
New Jersey
Totals for North Atlantic Division