Saturday, May 11, 2019

In Search of a Community’s First Franco-American School

I was travelling around New England – in a cold rain mostly – talking about my book A Distinct Alien Race. It was the final day of April 2019 and I woke up at 5:45 A.M. sharp and drove an hour to Brunswick, Maine to do an interview with WCME radio. I was through with the interview before 9 A.M. and found myself with a day to kill before a book signing at Brunswick’s Gulf of Maine Books at 7:00 P.M. But it’s easy to bide my time in Brunswick, since I always have research to do on the Franco-American community there.

Former Convent for St. John's School of Brunswick, Maine built in early 1890s. French-Canadian schools in New England.
Former Convent on Oak St. Brunswick, Maine
For years I’ve been curious about a Brunswick house, 12 Oak Street, once a small convent. On that same property was the first St. John’s School, the Franco-American parochial school my grandfather and his siblings attended. I have seen a fading photo or two of a clapboard building known locally as “the Little School,” located behind the brick convent. Per the U.S. Census, in 1900 my grandfather, then 6 years old, lived with his family at 24 Oak Street, just down the street from the school. That year, his two older brothers Geoffrey and Ludger attended the Little School.  

A 1927 book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brunswick’s St. John’s parish asserts that the school was a project of Father J.-B. Sekenger, the community’s third pastor who arrived in town in September 1892. The priest’s first concern was to establish a proper parochial school and he contacted an order of nuns known as la Congrégation des Dames de Sion which had directed parish schools in Lewiston and Auburn, Maine. On September 11, 1894, eight nuns of this order arrived at the train station in Brunswick, taking up residence at the small brick convent. A hangar located in the back of the convent was transformed into a schoolroom. 

There had been talk of a "French school" as far back as 1883 ("French School," Brunswick Telegraph, June 29, 1883), and lay teachers were employed before the nuns' arrival. But the Little School was the town's first, dedicated parochial school, with resident nuns as teachers.  

The convent and the hangar-turned-schoolhouse still exist. During my recent visit to the town, I managed to find and photograph the former school, now dilapidated. The photos below show the school, with the pupils arranged in front of it, circa 1890-1900 (photo courtesy of the Pejepscot Historical Society) and then the building's current state.
St. John's School, Brunswick, Maine circa 1900. French-Canadian school in New England.

Original St. John's School of Brunswick, Maine in 2019

The 1927 commemorative book claims that the former Little School became a garage after the parish built a new school, in use by 1913. The former convent, says the 1927 book, became the residence of A. Tondreau, one of the most prosperous Franco-Americans of Brunswick.

Using publicly available county real estate records, now digitized and online, I was able to trace the history of the property at 12 Oak Street that contained the convent and the school, as well as the history of this street where my grandfather grew up.

The property that became Oak Street was once owned by Hon. Charles J. Gilman (1824-1901) and his wife Alice McKeen Dunlap Gilman, a granddaughter of Joseph McKeen the first President of Bowdoin College. Charles Gilman was a lawyer and politician. In the 1850s, he served in the Maine legislature and in the U.S. Congress. He was a delegate to the 1860 Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. It appears that the property owned by the Gilmans had come through Alice Gilman’s Dunlap family. 

An 1871 map of Brunswick shows that Oak Street did not yet exist. The map marks clearly the Gilman property. In 1889, Alice Gilman sold a large plot of land to Albert S. Rines of Portland, Maine. The red rectangle I placed on the 1871 map marks the property Rines purchased, as far as I can tell from its description in the deed.

Detail from 1871 Map of Brunswick
Red rectangle marks approximate range of Rines property
including future Oak St. 
Over the next several years, Rines sold bits of this property, lot by lot, much of it to Franco-Americans, who were expanding out of the company-owned tenements in this period. Those who could afford to buy property had started to occupy the northwest corner of downtown Brunswick, per an 1885 article in the local newspaper, the Brunswick Telegraph. The Rines lots were in this part of the town. Circa 1890, a new road, called Oak Street, was cut through property Rines had purchased from the Gilman family. By 1900, Oak Street was 100% Franco-American.

In 1890, a prominent Franco-American known as Alexis Sainte-Marie purchased one of the lots belonging to Rines on Oak Street. Per the 1880 U.S. Census, Sainte-Marie was a baker, apparently working on his own account, a rarity in a time when the bulk of the Franco-American workers toiled in the nearby Cabot textile mill. Sainte-Marie also operated a small boarding house in town, one of the few that the local paper writing in 1886 found to be in good shape, in a neighborhood that was in very poor condition at that time. Sadly, the Sainte-Marie family lost two children in the 1886 diphtheria outbreak caused by the poor conditions in the Franco-American neighborhood.

In 1893, Sainte-Marie sold the property on Oak Street to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, under an 1887 Maine law known as the Corporation Sole. That law made all Catholic Church property in the state the sole possession of Maine’s ranking Bishop. Around the same time, a woman named Alphonsine Drapeau sold a property adjacent to Sainte-Marie’s to the Catholic bishop. I believe that these two properties, those sold by Sainte-Marie and Drapeau to the Church, are the property now demarcated as 12 Oak Street.

Real estate websites claim that the brick building at this address dates to 1889, but that is probably a year or two too early. Quite often, Maine's 19th c. deeds convey the "buildings thereon" when property is transferred, if there are buildings on the property in question. Since there are no buildings mentioned in the deed rendering the property from Rines to Sainte-Marie, I think it likely that Franco-American labor built both the brick convent and the wooden “hangar” that became the Little School. I believe that the brick convent was probably built for the purpose it first served, and was constructed right after Sainte-Marie purchased the property in 1890. It dates from the early 1890s, when another large brick structure in the town was built: the “new” Cabot Mill that still stands today as Fort Andross.

A local newspaper report of 1885 mentions that the Franco-Americans were building structures cooperatively in this part of the town. I surmise that Sainte-Marie bought this property on behalf of the Franco-American residents with the intention of building the convent and school there.  

After the nuns took possession of the convent, the Little School operated there for nearly 20 years. A 1901 map of Brunswick has the convent and school clearly labelled, ensconced at 12 Oak Street. The 1910 U.S. census lists the nuns who lived at 12 Oak Street and notes that nine of the eleven nuns residing there were teachers.

Detail from 1901 Map of Brunswick
Oak Street with convent and school indicated
When a new parochial school was built by 1913, Adjutor Tondreau purchased the property at 12 Oak Street from the Catholic Church. Tondreau, with his brother Omer, made a good living as proprietors of a local grocery store. They eventually purchased a block on Brunswick’s Maine Street that still bears their name. The block has a plaque commemorating the Tondreau brothers, born in Québec, who had made good in les États.
Tondreau Block, Maine Street, Brunswick
(Photo by Robby Virus)
With the 1913 sale, the former convent became a comfortable residence for a family, the former school serving as their garage. Per the historical plaque on the Tondreau Block, the brothers were famous for being among the first in the region to deliver groceries by truck, and I think it likely that, when not in use, the truck was parked in what had been the Little School.

The Tondreau family owned 12 Oak Street until 1995. The property, with the former convent divided into apartments, has had three owners since. Do the current owners or tenants know that the house was once the residence of pious nuns? Do they know that a generation or two of French-speaking students once filed into the school in their backyard, today a rundown outbuilding, resembling a barn, barely visible from Oak Street? There is no plaque or other recognition of the importance of these structures, most likely built by Franco-American hands. It was here, at this little school that my grandfather learned to read and write, and to speak English, since my grandfathers spoke French at home in Maine and learned their English in school.

To the town’s credit, there is some recognition there of the era of the Franco-Americans, who were quite visible and audible in Brunswick for about 100 years, from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century. There is a plaque near the pedestrian bridge that connects Brunswick with Topsham; there is the plaque on the Tondreau Block, and a photo in the former mill. But to the best of my knowledge and research, 12 Oak Street is one of the only remaining properties built by Franco-Americans to serve their community, when French was the language of this neighborhood – when it was the French Quarter where my grandparents lived and where my father was born.