The Bilingual U.S. – French New Hampshire

The two tiny, rural, long and narrow states of Vermont and New Hampshire may often be confused; but closer inspection reveals striking differences between the two neighbors.

Politically Vermont is liberal while New Hampshire has moved from the right to the center; the Green Mountains are primarily composed of green schist while the White Mountains are dominated by granite. Vermont is narrow in the south and expands towards to the north while New Hampshire does the opposite. This geographic detail reflects an important demographic difference: the population centers of the states are diametrically opposed. Burlington, VT, is in the north, 73 miles south of Montreal, while Manchester, NH is in the southern part of the state, only 53 miles north of Boston.

This difference in population distribution leads New Hampshire to “look towards” the much more populous state of Massachusetts in the same way that Vermont is linked to Quebec. It is therefore surprising to discover that Manchester has a rich Franco-American culture which has weathered the past century better than that of Burlington.

Manchester, much like its namesake in Northern England, is an industrial city which flourished along a river (the Merrimack in New Hampshire and the Irwell, the Irk, and the Medlock in England) during the 19th Century. Of the 900,000 French-Canadians who left Quebec in the period from 1840 to 1930, many came to Manchester to work in its factories. By 1900 60% of the textile workers in New Hampshire were French-Canadian.

These French-Canadian immigrants were children of La Survivance- the battle for cultural survival initiated by the 60,000 French immigrants left in Canada in 1760 when the French withdrew from the territory and left it in the hand of the English. Dominated by the English, the Quebecois sought strength in unity, closing their community to influences from the outside in order to maintain their language, religion, and way of life.

So it should come as no surprise that the French-Canadian immigrants in Manchester formed a tightly-knit, somewhat isolated community in their new place of residence. The West Side was a world unto itself for the Franco-American community; it contained the French-speaking parishes of Saint Augustin and Ste. Marie, L’Association Catholique de Jeunesse Franco-Américaine- a sort of French Y.M.C.A.- and the nation’s first credit union, La Caisse Populaire, Sainte-Marie.

A trip to the West Side no longer feels like a trip into Quebec. La Caisse Populaire, although still in operation, is now known as St. Mary’s Bank and recently removed the French language option from their ATMs. Ste. Marie Parish no longer offers masses in French, and L’Association Catholiqueno longer exists. On the other hand, the children of many of the French-Canadian immigrants have remained and pulses of Franco-American culture are to be found everywhere.

On Kelley Street on the West Side Chez Vachon is still serving many of the foods (such as poutine) that the French-American factory workers of the past century would probably have enjoyed after a hard day’s work. Over on the East Side, Mass is now offered in French at the Parish of Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue. Roger Lacerte broadcasts his French-language talk show “Chez Nous” on Manchester’s WFEA 1370 AM every Sunday from 9 AM to 12 PM and manages La Libraire Populaire, a bookstore completely dedicated to French literature. Finally, the somewhat exclusive Association Catholique has been replaced by the Franco-American Centre which regularly offers French cultural events open to everybody.

The city of Manchester is still growing and changing. With the construction of new headquarters, St. Mary’s Bank is taking an active role in the restoration of the West Side’s urban vitality, which was greatly damaged in the 1960’s by central city planners. Some Manchester Franco-Americans, like Robert Perreault, author of the 2010 book “Franco-American Life and Culture in Manchester, New Hampshire: Vivre La Différence”, are very keen on keeping their culture and language alive. Perreault and his wife Claudette, who grew up speaking French at home and perfected it in bilingual parochial schools, taught their son to speak French, and are now teaching their granddaughter. At least for the moment, the little girl won’t have many opportunities to use the language in her community, but the future always holds the possibility for change.