I’ve been surprised by the vibrancy and strength of the French-Canadian (or, depending on the time or your viewpoint, the Franco-American, Quebecois, Canadien, etc.) community in Chicago during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coming into this project, I knew very little of the presence of francophone immigrants in Chicago, and would have never suspected that their numbers were as high as they were, even if the ten thousand or so odd French-Canadians were dwarfed by the city’s Irish, German, and Polish populations. In my research, one of the best signposts of this community has been their French language newspaper, Le Courrier Franco-Americain.
Le Courrier was published under a variety of different names, with its last name change coming in 1905. The paper traced its origins to a Kankakee publication in 1856, and published weekly in Chicago until around 1920. Providing coverage of news related to the general francophone community in the Midwestern United States and the broader French world, the page above from a February 1917 issue is reflective of the publication’s wartime coverage. The French-speaking population of Chicago was very interested – as was most of the nation – in the First World War’s ebb and flow, and 1917 would be an especially important year for the community as the United States entered the war.
I’ve had a few difficulties with the PDF files I’ve created, so what I have to showcase of the paper is a bit limited. I’m also limited by the fact that I have only touched a portion of what I have. The respective historical societies of Minnesota and Wisconsin have lent me the full run of the paper from 1905-1913, and 1917 (along with an issue from 1890). This comes out to a lot of microfilm to glean through, but I am making considerable progress. The paper can be read in so many different ways that it really has proven its worth as one of my main sources. Even its name change in 1905 is a useful bit of information: the pre-1905 name Le Courrier Canadien reflects a community more at touch with its traditional heritage, whereas the name Le Courrier Franco-Americain shows a community establishing itself firmly within their adopted home.
The above page is from the December 14th, 1917 issue. There is a lot to use on just this one page. The ad for naturalization shows a community pushing (or perhaps being pulled) to become full American citizens, and gain all the rights and powers associated with citizenship. The fact that this move is being organized by a French national club is significant because it shows that at least some elements of this community wanted to see it transition more into American society. The article on the centenary of Illinois shows the francophone community highlighting its role in the founding and creation of the State of Illinois, perhaps trying to reflect that their place in Chicago is unique compared to other immigrant communities because the French were some of the first explorers and settlers of the region. Additionally, the sidebar listing consulates, organizations, industries, and businesses shows both a helpful list of further research opportunities, and the strong desire of the community to work with its own members. Finally, there’s the rather obvious “portrait of the week” (a weekly photo of an important community member which was placed in all the 1917 issues) which shows Fr. Gelinas of St. Jean-Baptiste, one of the French-Canadian parishes in Chicago.
Finally, I just wanted to include some photos from Sacred Heart Church, a small Chicago parish on the far south side near Blue Island. Founded in 1904, it was created to serve a group of French-Canadians working in a nearby brickyard. Some of the bricks from the brickyard were given to the community, which used them to cover the walls of their small frame church and build an enduring sacred monument. The photo above is from the interior of the small church, and it shows the striking grotto built into the wall. Modeled on the famous Lourdes shrine, the small grotto at Sacred Heart is a clear sign of the French influence on the parish. Worship at Lourdes skyrocketed in the latter nineteenth century, and to see such a shrine in a Chicago church is amazing. The Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Sacré-Coeur is another key element of French devotional practice, and in addition to the name of the parish, it can be seen most visibly in the stained glass of the church.
In all, I have a number of primary sources related to my community that I have been working with. There is still a lot more to be done, but I’m slogging through fairly well. I’m looking forward to visiting the Archdiocese archives again tomorrow, and stopping by Notre Dame de Chicago on Sunday.
À bientôt! (Yes, I am required to use French in this blog)