Arts & Culture
8:00 am
Tue May 22, 2012

New Hampshire's Immigration Story - La Survivance and the Franco Americans

(Robert Perreault talking to his granddaughter)

As first generation French Canadian mill workers turned to second and third generation, Franco Americans outnumbered all immigrant groups in New Hampshire. And their presence is felt today.  Even though it was Robert Perreault’s grandfather that emigrated from French Canada, he still carry’s on many of his culture’s traditions. He speaks fluent French and so does his son. Now, they’re passing that tradition to his granddaughter.

(Sound of playing)

This impulse to preserve tradition has been pronounced among Franco Americans. Other ethnic groups have come to New Hampshire and quickly tried to assimilate, the French did not.

There was a socio-historic aspect to it.When England conquered French Canada, they told their conquered subjects ‘you will become Protestant and you will become English. Well that didn’t work. They resisted in fact there was even a phenomenon known as ‘La revanche du berceau’ the revenge of the cradle. Let’s outnumber these English people. Let’s  have tons and tons of kids and we’ll just outnumber them. So they still have the power and the money but we’re so numerous that we can just do what we want. And eventually that’s kind of what happened.

And so according to Robert Perreault, what French Canadians refer to as, La Sur-vi-vance” was a mindset carried to their new home.

The idea was that the French Language was connected to the Catholic faith. The two worked hand in hand. There’s another saying ‘Qui perd sa langue perd sa foi he who loses his language, loses his faith, well they didn’t want to lose those two and plus their traditions, their culture and all. So when they came here, to work in the mills they had this idea that they were not going to become assimilated. They were going to work in their own neighborhoods and continue to work in an urban setting, the same life that they had had, in a rural agricultural setting

And so that’s what they did in places like Suncook, Berlin and on the West side of Manchester.  There were French parochial schools, French hospitals, French only newspapers.  And biggest drivers of La Survivance were the cure’s or French Catholic Priests. NHTI history professor, Stu Wallace

The curries were almost like a big city boss in a sense.  They’re not just the religious figure who runs the community, but they’re the one who will answer the needs of their parishioners. And they’re going to be the organizers behind insurance companies, sports teams, social clubs, benevolent clubs where a lot of benevolent organizations out there to help workers in ethnic groups because there’s no other support group if you are injured at work, there’s no workers comp, and so these benevolent groups which    were ethnic in nature would and step in and try to help the member of your community who was injured or out of work or whatever.

Perhaps the most influential of all of these cure’s was, Monsignor Pierre Hevey, assigned to St. Marie’s Parish on the West Side of Manchester in the late 1800s. John Clayton

Monsignor Pierre Hevey had a tremendous sense of foresight in terms of how he could serve his flock.  Yes, they built a magnificent church, but he knew there were needs that that church itself could not meet. 

So he created St. Peter’s orphanage for the Franco American children and Notre Dame Delour, its hospital. But probably what Father Hevey was best known starting the nation’s first credit union, right in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Originally it was called La Cass Popular St. Marie, and later it changed to Saint Mary’s Bank.  The year was 1908 and Father Hevey had heard about a new movement of banking going on in Quebec, started by a man named Alphonse Dejardin. So he brought Dejardin down to speak his parishioners.

(from a recording) Now if you give workers an easy access to a reservoir of funds with easy interest and payment terms, it changes everything. The cooperative association is not one of capital funds, but of people each member regardless of his contribution and capital, is on a perfectly equal footing with all of his fellow members.  That is to say each has but a single vote

That night one hundred and two members joined La Cass Popular St. Marie. More than a century later, St. Mary’s Bank is still going strong. To learn more about the development of the credit union, I spoke with St. Mary’s CEO, Ron Covey.

So before St..Mary's Bank, what were options that immigrants could do with the money that they earned from the mills?

Probably one of the biggest options they had was hide it inside their house and as the old saying goes under their mattress. But back then there were also a lot of fires, there wasn’t the safety. hey could join a bank but at that time, the banks were very particular. And they weren’t overly interested in taking in taking deposits that were nominal amounts of money for people who that just didn’t have a whole lot to save and they certainly weren’t interested in lending money because these people had just immigrated here. They had no credit history, they had no established roots to speak of and they were just laborers. So they found it very difficult getting loans at other financial institutions and that was probably the biggest challenge that they had more than taking deposits was finding someone to lend them.

And how much did its direct affiliate with a church influence people to join

I think the church gave the CU a place to organize with an instant amount of parishioners that would come here and it. It also gave the sense of trust in giving your hard earned money to somebody and an organization and understanding how it worked and I think the church gave it that credibility it needed and trust was a big factor. They were really handing over money that they had worked very hard for and when you see the room that you are coming into and you’re just writing it down on a ledger, talk about faith and trust in somebody. It was before you had deposit insurance that was going to insure your deposits or anything else.  You were handing your money over to somebody, hoping to get it back and so I think that helped an awful lot in the trust factor.

So moving ahead nearly 100 years today. What role does the immigrant and refugee sort of play with St. Mary’s bank?

It’s changed quite a bit over 100 years. Where we were predominantly French Canadian back in the early part of the 1900 and in fact up until recently, if you went to our ATM machines you could choose from having the screen in English or in French. But added to that as Manchester has changed, and we have probably 40 different nationalities in Manchester so has St. Mary’s and we have tellers in branches now that specifically cater to specific nationalities. In our Daniel Webster area a fair amount of Polish and a couple of tellers that speak Polish. Of course on the West side here, French is still spoken all the time. In Nashua because our branch is located really in the inner city, we have immigrants from all over that have migrated to that part of Nashua and as we’ve gotten that population we have employees that speak those languages or are from those  countries that are immigrants themselves so we keep  on that basis.

Ron Covey thanks so much for talking with me,

Keith thank you very much I’ve really enjoyed it.