Most of the French Canadians who arrived in Massachusetts in the decades after the Civil War came, as the Irish had before them, to escape crushing poverty at home. Quebec had suffered a deep and prolonged agrarian depression in the mid-1800s. By 1880, one-third to one-quarter of all the arable land in Quebec had been abandoned as families found they could not survive on their farms. 25,000 French Canadians sought a new life across the border in New England's booming mill towns.
French Canadians poured into Lowell, Lawrence, Leominster, Gardner, Springfield, North Adams, New Bedford, and Fall River. Those who came to Fall River, which became a center of textile manufacturing with the development of steam power after the Civil War, joined a workforce that was made up predominantly of immigrants from England and Ireland. Many of the English were skilled workers who laid claim to the higher-paying jobs. They were also accustomed to urban life, had a tradition of participating in an organized labor movement, and backed pro-labor Democrats in politics. The Irish, some of whom had acquired textile machinery skills in Lancashire, England, before emigrating, quickly learned to adopt the practices of English militant laborers; they also began to use the city's frequent labor upheavals to build their base in the city's Democratic party. It was all utterly alien to the French Canadians.
The Quebequois who came to Fall River were rural people. They had no experience with factory work, and their poverty gave them little choice but to accept lower wages than those paid to other groups. This earned them the enmity of both the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics. The Canadians were also hostile to labor unions and tended to support the Republican Party. Isolated by language, the Canadians clustered in their own squalid neighborhoods, segregated from the English and Irish. Religion was a refuge; French-speaking priests provided ministry as well as community leadership and social services.
Tensions mounted as the Irish began to play a greater role in Fall River's labor movement and political establishment. Yankees, especially the Republican men who owned and ran the mills and city businesses, had traditionally dominated politics in the city. By 1879, however, one of the candidates for mayor was not only a Democrat but an Irishman. Within five years, Fall River had its first Irish mayor. Despite sharing a religion with the Irish, the French Canadians regarded the Irish as antagonists and did not support the Irish candidate.
Labor protests added to the tension between the French Canadians and Irish Catholics. Organized labor had a long history among British factory workers. When Fall River mill owners recruited skilled English textile workers after the Civil War, they unintentionally imported labor radicalism as well. Throughout the 1870s, immigrant English and Irish textile workers organized a series of labor actions and strikes. The French Canadians did not support the strikes, and in their desperate poverty they frequently took jobs as scabs or "knobsticks," as they were called. The Irish hated the French Canadians for what they saw as betrayal, and violence against "knobsticks" turned deadly.
In August 1884, the French Canadian priest assigned to Notre Dame, the church that served the French Canadians in the Flint Village area of Fall River, died suddenly. Three months later, the Bishop named a new pastor: Father Samuel P. McGee, an Irishman. The French Canadians were outraged. When the new priest arrived to say Mass in mid-December, he found the doors and windows nailed shut; when he managed to get into the building, several of the parishioners held him captive and threatened to kidnap him should he attempt to return to the church. Father McGee fled the pastoral residence and went into hiding. The Canadians collected money to send a delegation to Rome to plead for the appointment of a French-speaking priest.
Tensions grew worse in the following weeks. Fights broke out between those who were willing to accept the new priest and those who insisted on a French pastor. Angry crowds gathered outside the church and disrupted services. Police were dispatched to the church to prevent "sacrilege." By January, the newspapers were reporting near-riots. In one instance, a new choir arrived at the church to find the old choir, which had refused to sing for an Irish priest, threatening violence if the singers took their seats. Angry parishioners followed Father McGee out of the church, abusing and threatening him, and "calling him a dd Irishman."
On February 13, 1885, the Bishop closed the church and withdrew the priest, explaining that he had "been compelled to this action by the insubordination of some of the flock." The church reopened the next year, under another Irish pastor, and conflict began again. Ethnic tensions between Irish and French Canadians in Fall River did not ease until the end of the century when the arrival of Portuguese, Greeks, Poles, Lithuanians, and Italian immigrants changed the ethnic, political, and social mix of Fall River and other Massachusetts cities.
Massachusetts: A Concise History, by Richard D. Brown and Jack Tager (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).
Victorian Vistas: Fall River, 1865-1885, ed. by Philip T. Silvia, Jr. (R.E. Smith Printing Co., 1987).