Biddeford and Franco-American history

Recently, Jeff Cabral, the director of the McArthur Library in Biddeford, shared information with me about how a Quebec history researcher was interviewing the city’s Franco-Americans.  Katerie Gaudet-Chamberland, is a researcher from Quebec City. She worked for 12 weeks as an intern, in the library on Main Street, to document the connections between Biddeford and French-Canadians, who are Franco-Americans.

Founders monument at UNE in Biddeford

Father Arthur Decary and Father Zenon Decary were two founders of the University of New England, when it was St. Francis College ~ dedicated memorial and cemetery, on the University of New England campus in Biddeford. (L’Heureux photograph)

Typically, I point to two references whenever I’m asked about French-Canadian history in Biddeford. Although there are many resources about his history (including from oral histories) my personal references describe the education and social institutions brought to Biddeford by the Decary brothers (Arthur and Zenon, two priests from Montreal) and the discrimination issue described in the December 10, 1973 article in The New Yorker, Ou se Trouve La Flage?, by Calvin Trillin.

Overall, the interests in learning more about the French-Canadian immigration experiences in Maine are widespread. It’s also the likely reason why reporting about the subject is enjoyable and ongoing.

Moreover, the interest comes from diverse populations. In my experience, Franco-Americans share a keen interest in learning more about the group’s history and culture, because so little is reported in American history books about this issue.  Likewise, American readers, in general, are eager to learn more about the French in North America and surprised by the level of Maine’s connection to this history. In fact, Franco-Americans are Maine’s largest ethnic minority group.

Mayor Alan Casavant, who is a former history teacher and state legislator, is interested in learning more about how to celebrate the city’s French-Canadian history and the Franco culture. In fact, Casavant participated in the Francophone and Francophile Cities Network conference in Quebec City.  A mission of the network is to promote the culture, economy and tourist industry of Francophone and Francophile cities.

In the Network’s strategic plan, the diversity of interest in the Franco-American history is explained as being rooted in ties with the French language and culture that are historically rich and extremely significant, spread over four centuries. Ever since Samuel de Champlain brought France to the New World over 400 years ago, Francophones have set down roots across the continent, from East to West and from North to South.

French influence in America is demonstrated through colonial exploration, international commerce with French Canada, migrations and immigration by the French, Acadians, French Canadians, and francophone Quebecers, who crisscrossed Canada and the United States. In fact, they helped found and build new settlements, which prospered and grew.  Certainly, this settlement and investment by French-Canadians is evident throughout Maine. Biddeford is one of many Maine cities that are connected by the French-Canadian and Acadian migrations and immigration.

In the book that describes the history of the University of New England (UNE) in Biddeford, the author Eleanor H. Haney wrote about the Decary brothers in “Shaping a Future: The Founding of the University of New England.” Chapter 2 quotes Norman Beaupre, of Biddeford, and a professor emeritus of UNE, who explained how Father Arthur Decary had a dream about raising the aspirations of Biddeford’s “little Canada” citizens, by providing them with access to education and social support.  Beginning in the 1870’s and through the 1900’s, about 15,000 French-Canadians settled in Biddeford, to work in the mills on the Saco River. They settled together, creating their own parochial communities called “little Canadas”, to protect and preserve their heritage. Their  working conditions in the mills were harsh and made worse by a prevailing tendency to stereotype them negatively. In 1932, Father Arthur Decary, who was a priest in Biddeford, used his own financial resources and contributions to establish social institutions in to help the French-Canadian families.  With the money, he established programs for children, child care for mothers, an elementary school with a convent for teachers and the Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) orphanage. He also founded the St. Andre’s Home for unwed mothers and Notre Dame Hospital, Marie Joseph Academy and the St. Francis College for young men. Father Arthur Decary called on his brother, Father Zenon Decary, to help with this vision for Biddeford’s Franco-Americans.  In fact, Arthur and Zenon grew up in a wealthy Montreal family. Both became priests and came to Biddeford as missionaries.

Beaupre is quoted, ““One cannot change the Franciscan Franco-American roots of UNE, because it is the heart of the institution”.

This history, described by Haney, in the founding of UNE, provides historical insight into how Franco-Americans were eventually able to assimilate into Biddeford.

Unfortunately, the discrimination against Franco-Americans didn’t just disappear.  Describing this history was the purpose of the Trillin article in The New Yorker.  Moreover, the article highlighted how Franco-Americans learned to maximize their growing political influence in the largely Protestant and English speaking community. Trillin reported how Mayor Boucher, who served in Biddeford as a legendary leader for many years, was able to thwart overt discrimination against Franco-Americans, who wanted to enjoy public access to the city’s ocean beach.

An important footnote to the history of the Decary brothers. Father Zenon Decary is revered by many who are following his cause as a healer. His legacy as a devout Roman Catholic religious priest is documented and preserved as a potential cause for beatification.

Father Zenon Decary helped his brother to create education and social institutions in Biddeford to help French-Canadian immigrants

Father Zenon Decary headstone at the University of New England (L’Heureux photograph)

A tribute to the founders of the University of New England, formerly “St. Francis College” is evident in a monument dedicated to them, on the campus.


Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.