Dominicans come to Fall River

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On 22 November 1887, three Dominican Fathers arrived from Lewiston, Maine, to Fall River, to take charge of St Anne Parish, temporarily and on trial. We shall see the reasons for their coming, the favor they soon enjoyed from the parishioners of St Anne, the population of Fall River, and Bishop Matthew Harkins of Providence.

Motives that prompted the French Dominicans to establish in Fall River

First and foremost, Bishop Harkins wanted at all cost to provide the “Canadians” of St Anne with French priests. Two reasons pressed him to do so: the crisis provoked by the assimilation policy of his predecessor, Bishop Hendricken, who had imposed an Irish pastor to the parishioners of Notre Dame, as well as to those of St Anne; also the urgency to maintain the influence of the Catholic clergy upon the French-speaking population of Fall River at a time when the Protestant churches were launching an intensive campaign of “evangelization” among the French settlements of Massachusetts.

The Crisis at Notre Dame

After the death of Father Bedard (August 1884), the French-Canadian priest who founded the parish of Notre Dame de Lourdes in the Flint section of Fall River, Bishop Hendricken appointed an Irish priest, Father McGee, to succeed him. The “Canadians” never accepted him.

The parish trustees sent a delegation to Providence, hoping to persuade the bishop to change his mind and give them a French-Canadian pastor. The reply of Bishop Hendricken was disheartening. He condemned the excessive national pride of the Canadians and stated rather rudely that Father McGee spoke better French than any of them. This peremptory refusal aggravated by insult was the spark that caused an explosion to erupt.

The parishioners of Notre Dame decided to boycott their pastor financially and to make his life miserable through all sorts of harassments. In mid-February 1885, the break between Hendricken and the parishioners of Notre Dame was consummated. The bishop responded to the stubbornness of the parishioners, whom he considered in a state of revolt against his authority, by declaring the parish of Notre Dame under interdict. The church was closed to worship and deprived of any priest. A state of affairs that was to last seven months.

Meanwhile, the parishioners of Notre Dame, sincerely believing their demands to be just, took their case to Rome. For the sake of brevity, let us simply state that Cardinal Simeoni, Prefect of the Congregation of the Propaganda of the Faith, decided in favor of the Canadians, but with all the diplomatic niceties that respected the authority and feelings of the Bishop. Through the good offices of Archbishop Williams of Boston, Cardinal Simeoni proposed the following compromise: the Bishop of Providence was authorized to appoint a pastor of his choice to Notre Dame on the condition that he give him a Canadian curate “until such a time when he deems fitting to name a Canadian pastor.”

On 13 September 1885, Bishop Hendricken came personally to celebrate Mass at Notre Dame. He was accompanied by Father Peter Ferron, the new pastor. Father Ferron, in spite of his name, was Irish, born and educated in Montreal. On 13 December following, Father Joseph Laflamme, who had been pastor of the important parish of Saint Ephrem in Upton, was named curate. On seeing a pastor of such standing and experience brought in from Canada to be a mere curate, the parishioners understood that he would soon be promoted to the position of pastor. They graciously accepted what they saw to be a diplomatic compromise. Thus was resolved the famous crisis of Notre Dame.

Commotion at Saint Anne

At the same time, St Anne Parish was being administered by another Irish priest, Father Thomas Briscoe, assisted by a curate who likewise was Irish. The troubles at Notre Dame had heated repercussions throughout the French-Canadian population of Fall River. Spirits were exacerbated and the priests of St Anne were caught in the conflict between their parishioners and the Bishop of Providence.

To be fair toward Father Briscoe, we must recognize in him a man of great distinction, learned, and who spoke French fluently for having studied in France. He was a zealous and respected pastor. During the nine years of his pastorate, St Anne Parish prospered. In 1882-83 he built a convent school and personally made a trip to St Laurent, near Montreal, to obtain Holy Cross Sisters to teach his children. He thereby showed an interest to not only teach religion but also the French language to his parishioners. He also endowed his parish with many religious societies, as shall be seen later.

No doubt the parishioners of St Anne would have preferred a priest of their ethnic background, but they appreciated the talent and the dedication of Father Briscoe and, on the whole, I have the clear impression that they accepted him willingly and accorded him their sincere collaboration until the time when the troubles of Notre Dame erupted. The entire Canadian population of Fall River was then in a state of commotion and Father Briscoe suffered the painful repercussions. He and his curate had to respect the authority of Bishop Hendricken whose assimilation policy revolted the Canadians.

On 11 June 1886, Bishop Hendricken died. Bishop Harkins succeeded him in April of 1887. The first objective of his episcopacy was to ensure peace with the Canadians of Fall River by giving to St Anne Parish French priests.

He first approached the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate at Lowell. They declined, alleging lack of personnel. It also seems that they feared getting involved in a hornet’s nest owing to the tense situation among the Canadians of Fall River.

That is when Bishop Harkins turned to the French Dominicans of Lewiston, with the help of his friend Bishop Healy of Portland, Maine. Father Louis Mothon, O.P., superior of the young Dominican community of Lewiston, went to meet the Bishop in Providence. The latter explained thoroughly the situation of the Canadians in Fall River and the importance, for the peace of that community, to give them French priests.

On his way back to Lewiston, Father Mothon stopped at Fall River as Bishop Harkins had urged him to do, and he was able to see for himself the state of St Anne Parish. The chronicler of the Dominican House at Lewiston noted on 21 October 1887: “Return of Father Prior. He found Fall River in an excellent financial situation; not so the moral situation. There is much good that needs to be done. The Bishop of Providence puts a great deal of pressure on us to accept. Father Prior has written to the Provincial asking if we could accept the parish at least provisionally and has requested a reply by telegram.” The provincial council has accepted for one year and St Anne Parish was accepted definitively by the Dominican Order on 26 September 1888.

Protestant proselytism

While the ethnic crisis was being played out at Fall River, another problem bothered Bishop Harkins. Since 1882, and with an increased intensity during the Notre Dame crisis, Protestants launched a great “evangelization” campaign in the French-speaking communities of Massachusetts. This missionary enterprise was sponsored and financed by the “Massachusetts Home Missionary Society of Boston.”

This society had in 1877 begun a vigorous effort to convert the French Canadians of Massachusetts, beginning at Lowell. Between 1882 and 1885, several French Protestant missions or chapels were founded in Fall River, headed by French-speaking pastors with names like Leger, Allard, Mousseau, and Cote. Pastor Allard came from Quebec and was the nephew of the famous apostate priest Charles Chiniquy. From 1885 on, Chiniquy himself made several visits to Fall River, giving public lectures, preaching in Protestant churches, everywhere denouncing the “errors” of the Church of Rome. He was a great orator, very popular and dynamic even with his 80 years and more. Although relatively few Canadians got taken in, he nonetheless attracted some malcontents. We have had a “Chiniquy church” in Fall River and individuals called “Chiniquys” at the Flint in Fall River until a few years ago. The wolf had penetrated the sheepfold.

Advantages for the French Dominicans in Fall River

A Dominican foundation in Fall River appeared to Father Mothon as a wonderful opportunity. The Dominican Province of France was in disarray. On 29 March 1880, the French government ordered the expropriation and expulsion of religious orders. Father Chocarne, the French Provincial, looked to America as offering the French Dominicans a refuge and a fruitful field of apostolic works. Father Mothon was convinced, for his part, that it was his mission to prepare that refuge for the French Dominicans in the United States. It was advantageous from this point of view to accept the offer of Bishop Harkins to establish a Dominican House in Fall River.

Father Mothon, furthermore, had been able to observe “the rivalry, the deep antipathy between the two Catholic races, the Canadian and the Irish, established in the presence of each other in the same region” and “between these two elements … the Dominican religious from France seemed to have been called by divine Providence to exercise a pacifying influence most effective and salutary.” He had seen right and could assert: “The American bishops, of Irish origin, do not have against us the prejudices they have always entertained against the Canadian element… The Canadians, on the other hand, regard us as compatriots and accept our leadership with joy.”

In a letter of October 1887 to his Provincial, Father Mothon holds out for the province of France the bright prospects of accepting St Anne Parish, and he writes, “When I consider all the good we could do there and the large number of our young priests who have practically no ministry to do in France, I regret that the trend of opinion at home is not more in this direction.” The French prefer to twiddle their thumbs rather than work in a parish. They see parishes as not being the work of Dominicans.

The Dominicans at St Anne

At last, the Dominicans arrived at Fall River one Tuesday afternoon, 22 November 1887. It was Father Mothon, accompanied by Fathers Francois Esteva and Bernard Sauval. Six days later Father Paul Henri Cormerais joined them. Father Mothon was 43 years old, Father Esteva 51, Father Sauval 39, and Father Cormerais 38.

A religious order was not exactly what the Canadians of St Anne had hoped for. They wanted to be served by “Canadian” priests and the religious orders at that time were made up of Frenchmen from the mother country. “But,” as L’Independent sighed, “the people count for so little in our day.”

This adverse predisposition did not prevent the Dominican Fathers from winning the hearts of their people fast. The Sunday after their arrival they began to preach a great mission: one week for the ladies, the next for the men. The eloquence and the goodness of these religious dispelled all prejudices.

A few months after their arrival, Hugo Dubuque could write: “These valiant disciples of Saint Dominic succeeded in making us forget all the bitterness, not to say the misfortunes of the past. The faithful already hasten to listen to the proverbial eloquence of these Friars Preachers who will soon give to a notable portion of the population the impulse needed for its spiritual, moral, and intellectual advancement. We have no doubt that in a few years we shall be happy to record here, as was done elsewhere, the many benefits that will have accrued to the people entrusted to their paternal care… We can add that they are highly esteemed of the Canadian population and that since their arrival in this city, Saint Anne Parish, that languished somewhat, has recovered a life and activity that testify to the zeal and religious ardor of the priests in charge.”

Other testimonies

On 25 May 1888, barely six months after the Dominicans arrived in Fall River, the Fall River News paid them this magnificent compliment:

ACCOMPLISHED CLERGYMEN. The Dominican Fathers in charge of Saint Anne’s Catholic Parish, who are native French priests, are, it is said, among the most accomplished and intelligent Catholic clergymen ever settled in this city. Their administration of the affairs of the parish has been very successful and they have become greatly endeared to the people. Some of the members of the brotherhood, who were unable to talk the English language when they came here, have been pursuing its study attentively and will soon have mastered the language. The parish is prosperous under their charge.

The Dominicans praised by Bishop Harkins in the petition addressed to Rome to obtain the authorization to entrust St Anne Parish to a religious order, the Bishop writes: “The good Fathers succeed marvelously. It will be a source of blessings for the whole diocese to have the Fathers settled in a large center like Fall River, from where they can radiate and do much good.”

A few years later, Bishop Harkins wrote in a letter dated 28 November 1903: “The Dominican Fathers have had charge of the parish of Saint Anne, Fall River, in the Diocese of Providence, for the last 16 years. During that time they have labored most zealously for the spiritual and temporal interests of the parish, and with remarkable success. Their relations with the Ordinary and with the diocesan clergy have been most friendly and loyal. The parish, while under their care, has been divided twice with the freely-given consent of the superiors; and the portions set off have been placed under the charge of members of the diocesan clergy. They have been always willing to cooperate in work undertaken for the general good of the Diocese and they have the confidence, esteem, and affection of +Matthew Harkins, Bishop of Providence.

Accomplishments of the Dominicans in Fall River

When the Dominicans arrived at Fall River, they found at St Anne a prosperous parish, a beautiful parish, “one of the most important parishes of the Diocese,” according to Bishop Harkins.

Before we speak of the accomplishments of the Dominicans at St Anne, we should describe briefly the state of the parish at their arrival.

State of St Anne Parish in November 1887

Father Mothon gave an interesting report in a letter to his Provincial dated 26 October 1887. After visiting the parish, he provides him with “the information that I obtained de visu at the official sources and of which I can guarantee the most scrupulous exactness …

Saint Anne Parish of Fall River is one of the most ancient Canadian parishes in the United States, one of the most important and richest. It is situated in the very center of the city and has a population of six to seven thousand Catholics. (A report for 1887 indicates 1200 families and 6500 souls.)

As far as the properties are concerned, they comprise (1) a vast church of mediocre architecture, but all finished and larger than that of Lewiston. (Note: Reference is to the primitive churches of each parish). (2) A large parish house where we could easily accommodate five or six religious. (3) A very beautiful and vast school under the direction of the French Sisters of the Holy Cross of Mans, who also have their living quarters in a part of the edifice. The school is surrounded by two large yards, the rectory by a fairly large garden, and the church itself by a sizable piece of land; all properties forming an undivided whole; they comprise all the land within four streets (Note: except two lots), and constitute the finest church property in the city.

Father Mothon plays up for his Provincial the advantageous financial posture of St Anne Parish, which contrasts with the debt that burdens the community of Lewiston, Maine:

From the financial point of view, the parish being very ancient, finds itself in an excellent situation… There is a church, a vast piece of land, a parish house with all the furnishings and, to compliment the whole, a substantial school, all owned by the parish; and on the entirety of these properties, a mere debt of $9,500. For a congregation of such importance, and considering the various institutions set in place, that’s nothing at all. It is therefore certain that the offer made to us is exceptionally advantageous and it is probable that no other comparable offer will ever be made to us again.

Father Mothon states that he has personally examined all the books of the parish. And he muses, thinking that if our Fathers came to Fall River, they could with their salary save enough to come to the help of their confreres at Lewiston.

A Parish well-organized

When the Dominican Fathers arrived at Fall River, St Anne Parish had all the organizations and institutions needed for its good functioning: a church, a rectory, a school, a convent, a religious community of Sisters, and several religious societies to animate parish life. We might note in passing that the Sisters’ convent included a day school and a boarding school.

Traditionally the religious societies in our parishes are the dynamic agents that nourish the piety of the faithful and carry out a variety of social and recreational activities. At St Anne, the most ancient of these societies was that of the Children of Mary, founded by Father de Montaubricq in 1876. Father Briscoe founded the Sodality of the Ladies of Saint Anne (1879), the Third Order of Saint Francis (1880), the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Society of the Altar Boys. These too had their monthly meetings on Sundays after Vespers, like all the other religious societies of the parish.

It is proper to mention here that St Anne Parish even had a parish library in the basement of the old church, inaugurated by Father de Montaubricq. Need it be said that the parish also had a choir to enhance the liturgical services, a choir that also on occasion gave concerts that were much appreciated. Saint Anne Parish distinguished itself from the time of Father Briscoe for its fine choir.

In short, our Fathers, when they arrived at St Anne, found a prosperous and well-organized parish. Father Gillant had good reasons to praise Father Briscoe, describing him as “a pastor full of zeal for the welfare of souls and of administrative intelligence.”

Moral state of the parish

Here the picture is not so rosy. The ethnic troubles we talked about earlier had estranged a number of parishioners from the Church. The French newspaper L’Independent observed on 11 June 1886: “About one-third of the parishioners of Saint Anne (who have remained faithful to their religious duties) do not attend church at their parish.” On 26 October 1887, Father Mothon wrote to his Provincial: “The population is one-half in a state of uprising against the clergy; a portion of the people no longer come to church.” Three weeks later he wrote: “The whole parish is ablaze and the entire population in a deplorable moral and religious state.”

Father Bourgeois evoked some years later (1894) this moral distress: “The parish was suffering, the sacraments were forsaken; we no longer recognized the fervor of the Canadian people.” Father Plourde remarks in his history of St Anne: “The word of Father Bourgeois is telling: he who had known the fervor of the Canadians when he arrived at Saint Hyacinthe (Canada) in 1873, knew what he was saying.”

Accomplishments of the Dominicans at Saint Anne

It is in this community of Canadians one time so fervent, now demoralized, that our first Fathers arrived on 22 November 1887. They arrived with a plan of action well-defined: to preach a great mission without delay. They began the following Sunday.

They succeeded beyond all expectations. People flocked to both missions. At the close of the women’s retreat there were 3,000 Communions, and almost as many men communicating the following Sunday. “A few weeks after our arrival,” writes Father Mothon, “the men had gone back to church.”

Encouraged by this initial success, the Dominicans realized that with these good Canadians they could dare to undertake everything. And they plunged headlong with incredible enthusiasm.

The first twenty years, from 1887 to 1907, were an era of expansion and construction, to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. In 1889 a chapel was built at the Shove, at the south end of the city: Saint Dominic’s Church, now Blessed Sacrament [closed in 2002]. This will be a mission of St Anne. In the basement, classrooms were set.

3 May 1891: blessing of a fine brick school on Hope Street, that the Fathers had just built, barely three and a half years after their arrival. The enthusiasm of the parishioners was obvious. One of them contributed $50 towards the new school.

September 1891: erection of St Jean Baptiste School , on the corner of Benjamin and Tuttle, to accommodate the children residing between St Dominic and St Anne Schools. This new school will later be named St Thomas when St Jean Baptiste Parish will be founded in the Maplewood district with its school of the same name.

4 September 1891: three Dominican Sisters from Carrolton, Missouri, arrive at Fall River to take charge of St Dominic’s School. Others will follow soon and the Sisters will also take charge of St Jean Baptiste School. Father Francois Esteva, the first Dominican pastor, is the one who negotiated the coming of these Sisters who later, in 1895 will set up their residence at “Dominican Academy” on Park Street, at the heart of St Anne Parish.

24 January 1892: Father Sauval announces his grand project: the building of a new church on South Main Street. On 9 May he announces the purchase of the land. L’Independent of 16 June reports the grandiose vision of Pastor Sauval: “The Dominican Fathers of Saint Anne plan to erect a church vast enough to receive pilgrimages that will be organized from time to time to this new shrine of Saint Anne, that is destined to become as famous here in the United States as that of Saint Anne de Beaupre in Canada.”

What an ambitious project for these sons of Saint Dominic, who have been established in Fall River for just a little over four years! There is nothing to stop them. Father Jacques Bellemare, chronicler of the house, will write: “The parishioners of Saint Anne banded around the first Dominicans who came to reside in Fall River in a wondrous way.” And he adds: “The Fathers understood that with parishioners like ours, we had no reason to hesitate. Consequently, all sorts of undertakings followed one another with a stunning rapidity.”

1894-95: Construction of the basement of the new church and of the new rectory at the corner of South Main and Middle Streets. The first Mass was celebrated there on Sunday, October 6, 1895.

August 1895: Arrival of Christian Brothers into the parish to teach our boys. In September of 1898, “Saint Anne’s Commercial Academy” will be inaugurated by the Brothers at the request of Father Sauval.

1897: The foundation of the mission church of St Jean Baptiste in the Maplewood district of Fall River, another mission of St Anne. Here, a church basement was built alone for now, that will also provide space for classrooms.

1902-06: Construction of the upper church. This masterpiece of church architecture is the work of a Canadian architect Napoleon Bourassa. The new church was dedicated with great solemnity on the 4th of July 1906.

5 February 1906: Dedication of Saint Anne Hospital. A project of Father Raymond Grolleau, launched in April 1902. The construction was begun in mid-March 1905, when Pastor Grolleau was still overseeing the construction of the new church as well as the new residence of the Dominicans on Middle Street. The architect of both the hospital and the new convent was the Dominican Father Paul V. Charland. In March of 1904, Father Grolleau sailed to France, and contacted the superior of the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation at Tours, seeking to entrust to that religious community the direction and staffing of Saint Anne Hospital. The Sisters accepted and three of them arrived at Fall River the 19th of September 1905. I am at pains to conceive the kind of organizational mind Father Grolleau had that enabled him to carry out simultaneously so many enormous projects, in addition to his ordinary pastoral responsibilities as pastor of Saint Anne.

1905-07: Construction of the new Dominican Priory on the corner of Middle and Forest Streets. Built of granite and blue marble, like the church, in a very elegant style befitting the magnificent church it adjoins.

A few more achievements of the Dominicans after 1907, worthy of mention:

A huge central school on Forest Street, with 35 classrooms and a splendid auditorium. A project launched in 1909, fulfilled in 1925.

1911: Father Bernard Percot founds the parish of St Dominic in Swansea, and simultaneously the mission chapel of St Francis Xavier at Barneyville or North Swansea.

1911: Father Amadee Jacquemet launches a temperance movement with a male group called “Cercles Lacordaire” and a female group called “Cercles Jeanne d’Arc.” This movement spread to all the Franco-American centers of New England and to the Province of Quebec, doing much good.

In 1911 also: Father Ange Emile Dion, pastor, started a weekly paper, La Semaine Paroissiale. This journal sought to provide its readers each Saturday with the parish calendar of the week: services, programs, meetings of societies, etc.; a parish chronicle; finally, news concerning the diocese and the Church universal. For many years the journal was distributed free to all the families. Later the paper was sold for one penny per issue. In 1913, La Semaine Paroissiale was adopted by all the French pastors of Fall River as the official journal of their church. The journal began the size of an eight-page parish bulletin. Two years later the large format of newspapers was adopted, until it assumed an intermediate size. Most impressive: in 1922, La Semaine Paroissiale was published in four editions: Fall River, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Bedford. La Semaine Paroissiale probably continued to publish until 1930.

Finally, a special mention must be made of the work of St Anne Shrine. It began with Father Sauval, pastor, when he launched a month of pilgrimages to Saint Anne for July 1892. The many parish sodalities would have their pilgrimage on an assigned day. Likewise, the French parishes would come each in turn. There even came an organized group from Taunton.

From March 1897 on, Father Sauval was assisted by Father Antonin Dallaire in the promotion of pilgrimages throughout the Franco-American parishes of the area. Father Dallaire would also in his turn welcome pilgrims visiting St Anne until August 1906 when he was transferred to Lewiston, Maine, to serve as pastor.

Finally, Father Vincent Marchildon will acquire an extraordinary reputation as the “apostle” of St Anne Shrine (1905-1965). He gave a strong impetus to the work of the Shrine and touched thousands of people by his kindness, compassion, and holiness.

The accomplishments of the Dominicans in Fall River are truly outstanding. They founded and built much, but above all they have had a spiritual influence that was extensive and deep, both by their preaching and by the holiness of their lives.

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