Father Gaston Carrière OMI collated the basis of this history of the St. Jean- Baptiste Province as an appendix to his biography of Father André Marie Garin OMI entitled “L’inoubliable Fondateur.” Father Carrière’s intention was to show the growth and development of what this pioneer had begun and how it stood in the year 1964. But since time has brought about so many changes to our Oblate institutions, I did not include the appendix in my recent translation of the book.
However, in this manuscript I have updated the history of the St. Jean Baptiste Province and I make it available as an overview for those who are interested in knowing where we have been.
Lucien A. Sawyer OMI
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF ST. JEAN-BAPTISTE PROVINCE OF LOWELL (1921-1999)
On December 21, 1841, Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal gratefully welcomed the sons of Bishop de Mazenod into his diocese, and without realizing it, was opening up for them all the doors of the American continent. Before long, these pioneers were spreading throughout Canada, even to the Far West. Others crossed over into the United States. At the end of October 1842, Father Telmon came to Corbeau (known today as Cooperville) New York, on Lake Champlain. In August 1851, Bishop Timon entrusted a parish in Buffalo New York, to Father Chevalier. Two years later, in October, Father Bernard founded another parish at Plattsburgh, New York. The following year, the Oblates established themselves in Bishop Goesbriand’s diocese at Burlington, Vermont. Besides serving these parishes, the fathers were engaged in preaching missions throughout the country. From 1856 to 1861, they preached more than a hundred such missions to Canadian immigrants as well as to English-speaking Catholics.
One successful mission, in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1868, resulted in a permanent establishment, at the invitation of Bishop Williams of Boston. These pages trace the history of that foundation and its rapid development.
The Oblates in the United States became numerous enough to separate from Canada and form their own province in 1883. Lowell was selected for the residence of the first Provincial, Father James McGrath. In the course of time this initial group gave birth to four other provinces spread across the nation.
At the General Chapter of 1920, Father Léon Lamothe, who had been personally called, placed before the superior general a request for the institution of a separate vicariate or province for the special needs of Franco-Americans. The geographic area would be the same as the first American province. He brought along a petition signed by all the French-speaking priests and brothers. They believed that this action would enable them to better serve the two million Franco-Americans living in this territory, and provide them with priests who understood their mentality and their language.
Archbishop Dontenwill, Superior General at the time, granted this request on March 1, 1921. The Vice-Province of St. Jean-Baptiste of Lowell was established for a trial period of three years, within the boundaries of the first province in the United States. It was to consist of St. Peter’s parish in Plattsburgh, St. Joseph ‘s and Notre Dame de Lourdes in Lowell, and parishes in Aurora, Egg Harbor, and Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin.
Father Eugene Turcotte was appointed vice-provincial, with 22 priests and 7 lay brothers under him.
The first concern of the new vice-provincial was to organize houses of formation.
Father Turcotte bought a house in Hudson, New Hampshire for the establishment of a Novitiate on June 22, 1922, and he opened a Juniorate at Colebrook, New Hampshire on September 1 of that same year.
The small vice-province made such significant progress that within three years, on May 1, 1924, it became a province with Father Turcotte at its head. The membership then consisted of 34 priests, 10 lay brothers, and 4 scholastics. Two years later, in 1926, there were 16 scholastic novices, and 12 novices/postulants for the brotherhood in Hudson. Six scholastics were studying in Ottawa. This rapid development inevitably created problems, and it must be acknowledged that a portion of the success that followed was due to the timely generosity of the Montreal province.
Following the verbal agreement between Bishop Williams and Father André Marie Garin, St. Joseph’s enjoyed the privileges of a parish church. June 26, 1868 may be considered as its foundation date, although the letter of canonical approval was only delivered one year later, on June 19, 1869.
St. Joseph’s Church had been hastily purchased, and it was soon obvious that its location was not central enough for the majority of the French-speaking population.
The Canadians were clustered in the northern and northwestern sections of the city, near the textile mills where they were employed in large numbers. To be closer to their people, the Oblates initially bought the Bonney house at the comer of Merrimack and Austin Streets for a rectory. They later purchased the whole block enclosed by Merrimack, Austin, Moody, and Aiken Streets for a new church, the construction of which is described in “The Man Lowell Remembered.” St. Jean-Baptiste church was finished in 1895, devastated by fire in November 1912, and then rebuilt as it stands today.
It became the central parish for the Oblates, and for many years its large rectory served as provincial house for the early days of the province.
With many demographic changes in the city, and the programs of urban renewal, St. Jean Baptiste church eventually became too large for an area of diminishing population. Most of the French-speaking parishioners moved to the suburbs, and there were not enough people left to maintain this magnificent building. Following discussions with archdiocesan authorities, the parish of St. Jean-Baptiste was reluctantly dissolved (in 1993) and a new parish was formed dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Carmen. The church was still a responsibility of the Oblate Fathers but it was now focused entirely on the spiritual needs of the large Hispanic population of Lowell. (Editor’s Note: Following the reconfiguration of the Archdiocese of Boston, Nuestra Señora del Carmen was suppressed in 2004.)
At the dawn of the century, the need for a church in another section of the city became acute. Many of the Franco-Americans who lived some distance from St. Joseph’s Church were abandoning their religious practices. Despite their relative poverty, the people organized and founded Notre Dame de Lourdes parish in 1908 after restoring an abandoned Baptist temple. A new and modern church complex was constructed in 1962. For many years, while serving the community, the parish was greatly involved with ministry to the many immigrant minorities in the area. A special center reached out to the needs of the many Southeast Asians who have been migrating to Lowell since the war in Vietnam. The church was an active member of many interfaith social programs that reached out to the needy of that part of the city. (Editor’s Note: Following the reconfiguration of the Archdiocese of Boston, Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes was suppressed in 2004.)
St. Jeanne d’Arc Parish was established on December 30,1922, by William Cardinal O’Connell. The Oblates of St. Joseph Parish had been ministering to the Franco-Americans on the Pawtucketville side of the Merrimack River area since 1920. A small school, built in 1910 by Father Campeau to accommodate younger children, was expanded and transformed into a school and chapel. The first Mass was celebrated there on the third Sunday of April 1921. By a decree of the General House, dated January 30, 1923, Father Léon Lamothe was appointed first Superior and the new residence was officially established.
A new stone church was completed in 1929. Later, a new slanted roof was added to improve the outside lines of the structure, and the interior of the church has been completely renovated in conformity with the latest liturgical requirements. (Editor’s Note: As a result of the reconfiguration process, the Archdiocese of Boston ordered the suppression of Ste-Jean d’Arc parish in 2004. Ste-Jeanne d’Arc grammar school, administered by the sisters of Charity of Ottawa is still active and currently operates under the auspices of St. Rita’s Parish.)
The Oblates of St. Joseph’s Parish served another mission, St. Marie’s, in South Lowell from 1906 to 1931.
There were 150 families who worshiped in that chapel in 1931, hence the time had arrived for a resident priest. During the observance of its silver jubilee, on November 25, the humble mission officially became another French-language church served by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. A new modern church structure was built in 1966.
1. The Missionary Team
The future of French preaching was anything but promising before the foundation of the St. Jean-Baptiste Province. The French-language Oblates were slowly vanishing in the United States Province. Many were getting old, replacements were few, and English was the dominant language. What hope could there be for meeting the needs of the growing French population?
Of all the immigrant groups to the United States, the French were the most conservative regarding their language and traditions. In 1920, the religious future of the large Franco-American population was in doubt since few families could benefit from sermons in English. The major authorities in the Congregation understood this plight well and acceded to the requests of the French group. The separation into an independent Oblate province gave new hope to the entire Franco-American clergy. Requests for preaching became more numerous. The Fathers were on the road continuously, preaching not only parish retreats, triduums, and novenas, but also many retreats for religious and priests.
The young province began developing its team of preachers in conformity with the requirements and the traditions of their congregation. The popularity of the French missions grew throughout New England, and even on occasion back to Canada. In time, many of the preachers began to exercise their ministry in retreat houses, while still reaching out to parishes.
2. Closed Retreats
In 1933, the French community in Lowell celebrated the 50th anniversary of the foundation of their French-language schools. Every Saturday, a devoted lay committee met with Fathers Léon Loranger and Lucien Brassard to plan the celebration. This activity brought together some fifty men who guided the program to a thrilling success. When the jubilee was over, they asked themselves, “Why separate? Why not organize so as to maintain this brotherhood and apostolic spirit that we have discovered?” Weekends of “closed” retreats seemed to be the answer. The plan became a reality during the summer of 1934. Oblate Father Athanase Francoeur preached the first two retreats from August 5 to 7, and August 12 to 14. The newspaper L’Etoile called the event “un brilliant succès.”
1. Shrine of Our Lady of Grace, Colebrook, New Hampshire
In 1947, at the approach of the anniversary of the Colebrook foundation, the local Oblates decided to erect a memorial to Our Lady in recognition for her graceful protection during those years. Since the grounds were along the well-traveled Route 3, it was thought that passersby would be inspired to stop for a visit to the Blessed Mother. After securing provincial approval and that of the Ordinary, the Oblates developed an outdoor setting that outgrew the original plan. The Shrine of Our Lady of Grace was the result.
Father Herve Gagnon, bursar, began leading work on the project in the Spring of 1948. The surroundings were beautifully landscaped, and an eight-foot statue of Our Lady of Grace, carved in white Carrara marble, was put in place to dominate the scene. This generous gift of Mr. Louis Gercone of Schenectady, New York, was installed on September 8.
On October 10, 1948, Bishop Matthew Brady of Manchester blessed the statue and officially signed the register as the first pilgrim. A granite altar was set up at the base of the monument in 1952. That Christmas and every Christmas since, the monument reflects the season’s joy. Visitors are attracted by the countless lights that glow throughout, and by the beautiful crèche. In 1954, a magnificent Way of the Cross was introduced across the grounds, and in1955 the mysteries of the Rosary were completed.
After the opening of the new St. Jean-Baptiste Church, in 1895 the older St. Joseph’s remained to serve as a chapel for the parishioners of that part of the city. Fathers Napoléon Pelletier and Charles Denizot devoted many years of service to this ancillary church. On May 10, 1956, Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, agreed to dedicate it as a shrine for the working people of Lowell, under the patronage of St. Joseph the Worker.
This first Oblate church of Lowell is located in the heart of the city, and continues to serve all classes of people. Today, with many improvements, it has truly become a spiritual center for laborers as well as their employers. Worshipers are drawn by the daily noontime Mass and the availability of confessors every day of the year. The church is never locked in the daytime.
V. OTHER UNDERTAKINGS
1. The Shrine Bookstore
In 1893 a parish library was established to provide religious and cultural reading material for St. Joseph’s parishioners. It began as a lending library, with as many as 3000 books in circulation. It was then called “L’ oeuvre de la Bonne Presse”, a source of good books. Father Geny organized it, Father Athanase Marion developed it, but when Father Armand Baron took charge, in 1905, it became a well-established institution for the next 30 years. A small store for the sale of religious objects had been included in 1887, but as it grew it became known, even during the priest’s lifetime as “La Librairie Baron.” After his death, the Baron library continued its important contribution of Catholic and French language books for the surrounding area.
The Baron Library is known today as the Shrine Bookstore. It is located in the lower part of the Shrine of St. Joseph the Worker, and continues to be an important source of religious books for priests, religious, and the laity. It is the largest distribution center in the region for religious articles such as liturgical books, vestments, statues, rosaries, holy pictures, medals and religious video. It still supplies French books.
2. Publications and Lay Associates
Father Edouard Carrier published the first issue of the American edition of “L’ Apostolat des Oblats de Marie Immaculée” in January 1935. The magazine was the same as the Canadian edition, except for the four pages attributed to the Province of St. Jean-Baptiste. It became the official organ of the Missionary Association of Mary Immaculate.
Father Carrier was successful as promoter and director of the Missionary Association of Mary Immaculate, as well as editor of’ L’Apostolat.” He held these responsibilities until August 1948, when Father Henri Bolduc succeeded him. As the times changed, the new editor realized that a substantial number of friends and benefactors could barely read the language of their forebears. To reach this group, in 1949 he began publishing The Oblate Mission News in English.
Father Roland St. Pierre replaced Father Bolduc in August 1952. A year later, Father St. Pierre replaced “L’ Apostolat” with “Le Missionnaire Oblat”, a magazine dedicated entirely to the activities of the St. Jean-Baptiste Province. There were for a while French and English periodicals from the province. Today, friends and benefactors are kept informed through the Oblate World.
The Franco-American orphanage was founded by Father Campeau in September 1908, to provide a facility where many children from families that had lost a spouse could receive appropriate care and primary instruction. It is still staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Quebec. The Oblates have always helped greatly in the material and spiritual welfare of this institution. Today, it is known as the Franco-American School, and the Oblates still provide a chaplain for the spiritual guidance of children.
4. Missions in the Philippines
The General Administration of the Oblates accepted this new apostolic field on March 14, 1939. The first contingent of missionaries arrived in Manila by September 25. It included Fathers Emile Bolduc, George Dion, and Egide Beaudoin, all three from St. Jean-Baptiste Province. Over the years about 10 priests from this Province worked in the Philippine missions, including Bishop George Dion of Jolo.
5. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Lowell, Massachusetts
The Lowell industries maintained a Corporation Hospital for their employees. This hospital was offered to the Oblates of St. Jean-Baptiste in 1930, with the provision that it would continue to serve the needs of the Lowell citizens. Father Bachand purchased the hospital for one dollar on November 1, 1930, and immediately turned it over to the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa. The Oblates have always been closely associated with St. Joseph’s, and continue to provide chaplaincy services, even though today it exists as a privately owned rehabilitation hospital.
6. Spanish Center of Lowell, Massachusetts
In the last 40 years, many Spanish-speaking immigrants settled in Lowell. They at first received little religious assistance because of the lack of Spanish-speaking priests. A Spanish center was organized in the basement of St. Joseph’s Church in 1965. The priests provided English classes as well as material and spiritual help for the Spanish-speaking people. It was a vital effort, which once again lived up to the ideal of St. Eugene de Mazenod: “to evangelize the poor.” As the ministry grew, Oblates from both provinces dedicated themselves to this work.
7. Garin Residence
The Oblates purchased a residence on Kirk Street, adjoining the Shrine of St. Joseph the Worker, to serve as a house of retirement for elderly fathers and brothers. This house, with a beautiful chapel and reception area, has several comfortable rooms where the residents can relax, read, and visit with each other. The central location provides plenty of sites for casual strolls, and has easy access to public transportation. The whole complex is connected to the first Oblate church in Lowell, and is appropriately named after Father Garin, the first Oblate to come to the city.
8. St. Eugene House
St. Eugene House was purchased August 30, 1994 from the Little Sisters of the Holy Family, who owned and occupied the facility for thirty years. In August 1995 Father Herve Gagnon moved in as clerk of the works to oversee renovations. It is now a residence for Oblates in specialized ministries, and a house of hospitality for Oblate visitors or Oblates on leave. It also provides overnight facilities and meeting rooms for groups.
11. The Peace and Justice Ministry
In the lower part of the shrine of St. Joseph the Worker, an office was opened by the Oblates to coordinate socially responsible programs throughout the Lowell area. It serves to promote a greater sense of justice for all the citizens.
12. Recent Developments
In recent years much evaluation has taken place. Many of the third and fourth generation Franco-Americans have kept traditions of the past, but the language of their grandparents is no longer associated with worship, except for the memory of a few hymns that are sung at the holidays or at funerals. The bulk of the ministry is now in English and the need for a Province that gets its identity from a language is no longer felt. Hence, in 1991 the General Administration agreed on geographic boundaries, to be worked out with the Eastern Province. At the same time, the name was changed from St. Jean Baptiste to the Northern Province. The five American Provinces became the Eastern, Northern, Southern, Central, and Western Provinces.
The second development was the reevaluation of ministries. In the spirit of the Oblate origins, flourishing parishes that had once been French and poor but are now thriving have been returned to their respective dioceses. This occurred first at Egg Harbor, and Fond-du-Lac Wisconsin, which were transferred to the Central Province, and eventually returned to the bishop. In 1989 St. Peter’s Parish, in Plattsburgh, was returned to the bishop of Ogdensburg. By the same token, depressed parishes such as Claremont, New Hampshire, Lincoln and Howland Maine were accepted. The Maine parishes are still tended to by the Oblates. The parish in Claremont, now the better for a temporary Oblate presence, was returned to the diocese of New Hampshire.
The third development, which is of great import for the future, is the combining of all the five American provinces into one national Oblate province, covering all of the United States. The Northern Province is now integrating its rich traditions into the history of the other American provinces. Through it all, the heritage of Father Garin is now being shared with the whole country.