Growing Up Franco

By Juliana L'Heureux

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Franco-American growing up in York County Maine from 1900 to the 1950s, spoke fluent Canadian French, practiced strict Roman Catholic religious traditions and were usually able to sing La Marseilles (the French national anthem) and O Canada, by heart, having learned the French words in parochial school.

Growing up as a modern Franco-American generally means learning about one’s culture in the English language from stories told by nostalgic relatives. "We make family stories into our culture," says the Lisbon Falls Franco-American writer Denis Ledoux.

Although over one-third of Maine’s population boasts at least some Franco-American heritage, a distinct cultural traits, like speaking French at home, is a fading custom.

Franco-Americans, like Ledoux, speak about the culture as "invisible". Franco-Americans culture is sometimes called "a quiet presence".

Sooner or later, nearly all of America’s melting pot becomes the mainstream culture. Nevertheless, the Franco-American culture is different because the French history in North America began in the late 1500s and pre-dates the arrival of English speaking settlers. Despite the seniority, Franco culture is dormant everywhere except among the small population of French speaking people who live in the Maine St. John River Valley.

Franco-American historians point to the end of World War II as the turning point for cultural assimilation. Prior to the War, Franco-Americans usually lived in close knit communities called "little Canada" in cities like Lewiston or Biddeford. Franco-American neighborhoods were quaint and meticulously clean sub-communities where summertime vegetable and flower gardens were carefully cultivated in every back yard.

Extended generations of the same family occupied several floors in triple-decker apartment houses. Young Franco-American men were once raised to respect the Quebec and French flags but they served with pride when drafted or enlisted to fight in the War with the American armed forces.

Growing up Franco during the 1940s and 1950s meant knowing French Canadian history as well as American history. Vacations for Franco-Americans meant taking the train back to Canada to visit with family members who stayed behind to work on poor family farms while others left to find work in the Maine and New England textile and shoe factories.

Unlike other immigrants, Franco-Americans intended to return to Canada after making "lots of money" (un tas d’argent). Many did return to their families in Quebec but about half remained in the US.

A young Franco boy growing up in the 1940s and 50s meant being an altar boy for Catholic Mass in local French speaking parishes. They earned ten cents for attending daily Masses and twenty-five cents for a wedding or funeral Masses.

When the textile mills offered the only employment, Franco-American children were often taken on school field trips to visit the local mills to orient them for future jobs.

Unlike many American stay-at-home housewives in the 1950s, the Franco-American women worked in mill labor jobs or in retail stores while raising their families.

Franco-Americans think the demise of the current generation will completely erase the culture, but no one can erase five hundred years of French history in North America. Storytelling is one important way to teach the culture to others.

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Published on April 13, 2000
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux