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All things Woonsocket series starts Monday!

April 29, 2011

As we kick off our One Square Mile reporting series on Woonsocket, WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay takes us back to the 1920s and the struggle of the city’s French Catholics to hold on to their language, faith and culture.

Many Americans think that our 21st Century debates over bilingual education and making English the nation’s official language are new. Well, a look at Woonsocket nearly a century ago shows that history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

After World War I, a wave of anti-immigrant nativism swept America and Rhode Island. Starting during the war, it sought to rid the United States of influences from Germany and then evolved into an effort to ensure that other immigrant groups did not import foreign ideas into our society.

A huge influx of immigrants to Rhode Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made our state the first in the United States to have a Roman Catholic majority.

Native Protestant Yankees, took a number of steps to protect their world, most notably General Assembly approval of the Peck Act in 1922, which required that all children, even those in parochial schools, be educated in English.

French Canadians, then a majority in Woonsocket, saw this as a threat to their culture, language and faith. French immigrants from Quebec had come to Woonsocket since before the Civil War to work in the textile factories that turned out some of the world’s finest worsted woolens.

These French-speaking immigrants had built a thriving society based on their Roman Catholic faith and passing on to their children their language and culture. Other Catholic immigrants to Rhode Island, including Italians and Polish, had fought for priests who spoke their language, but none with the persistence of the French in Woonsocket.

By the 1920s, this French-anchored society was threatened by such outside Americanizing influences as radio, labor unions and even baseball leagues.

A group of French-Canadian activists, supported by some French priests, organized to keep their language and faith free of English influences. These French activists believed that a French child who lost his native language would lose his faith.

They organized the Sentinelle movement, which was named after the newspaper they published to spread their views. They held rallies, some of which drew as many as 10,000 people.

It wasn’t only the Yankee lawmakers the French were fighting.

At the time, the Rev. William Hickey, the Catholic Bishop of Providence, was trying to unify a diocese made up of a League of Nations of immigrants: Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Portuguese and French. Hickey, who was Irish-American, wanted a single En glish-speaking Catholic diocese.

The Sentinelle movement was an offshoot of a similar push in Canada for French language and cultural equality. In the Quebec tradition, parish priests had much more authority over their flocks than they did in the U.S., where the Catholic Church was hierarchical and Bishops reigned supreme, according to the Rev. Robert Hayman, a Providence College historian and expert on Rhode Island religious and ethnic history.

While other immigrant groups were also targeted, the French “were unique in their devotion to their language and culture and believed the Peck Act was being aimed at them,’’ says Evelyn Sterne, a University of Rhode Island history professor.

In the end, Bishop Hickey won out. But it took intervention from the Vatican, which relieved the the priests who opposed Hickey from their pastoral duties and excommunicated the lay people allied with the movement. In time, they repented and were let back into the church.

As late as the 1950s and 60s, it was common to hear French spoken on the streets of Woonsocket. But over time, the larger American culture overwhelmed the French attempt to keep their heritage and faith pure. French Canadians were much more successful in preserving their language and culture in Quebec, where the seeds were planted for the Rene Levesque-Parti Quebecois takeover of provincial politics and the imposition of laws to protect the French language.

WRNI and the Rhode Island Foundation are sponsoring a community meeting on Woonsocket’s past and future at the Museum of work and Culture on Thursday, May 5th, starting at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free and public is encouraged to attend.

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