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Franco-American Institute featured in Salem Gazette – 28 June 2014

Heritage runs deep


Pierre Caisse was the first Frenchman to immigrate to Salem from Quebec. He arrived in 1856, a decade before the Civil War. By 1956, a century after Caisse came here, Salem had grown to become “one of the more prominent centers of Franco-American life in New England,” according to D.-Michel Michaud, Founder and President of the Franco-American Institute of Salem.

There were 5,000 French-speaking families in Salem by 1890 and 12,000 by 1910 a little more than a half century after that one lone Frenchman arrived. In 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial year, the French were at a peak of 45 percent of the city’s population.

The French community established two Les Petits Canadas or Little Canadas where they lived self-sufficiently. These neighborhoods were essentially mini cities within the city, containing everything the French needed — shops, bilingual parochial schools, French Catholic churches and places to work, so the French rarely ventured out and spoke only their language. La Pointe in the Lafayette Street area (The Point) was the largest of the Petits Canadas with 10,000 residents at the time of the Great Salem Fire; the other was Castle Hill on Jefferson Avenue with 5,000 residents.

La Pointe bore the brunt of the infamous fire that took place 100 years ago on June 25, 1914. LaPointe burned to the ground. It was leveled as if a deadly tornado had come through and many of its residents were forced to live temporary in tent cities set up in three locations, including Salem Common.

Some moved permanently to Castle Hill, others to neighboring towns such as Beverly. Many caught the train back to Quebec where they were welcomed with open arms as the province’s mills were desperate for workers. In fact, the train ride was free!
Jane Stauffer of Beckford Street, an Institute board member, remembers hearing about the fire all during her childhood. “I don’t think that any June 25th has gone by since the Fire without everyone talking about it,” the Salem native said.
Stauffer’s aunt Jeanette Masse – the youngest of one a large Soucy family – was two-years-old when her home and neighborhood were destroyed. The toddler’s parents and her 14 siblings lived in a tent on the Common before moving to Beverly.

“You’re on the Common, now what? Where do you go, what do you do?” asked Stauffer of her relatives’ plight. “The National Guard set up a food tent and by evening everyone had a meal.“
Masse eventually moved back to Salem and stayed for decades until moving into assisted living in Danvers two years ago. Now a venerable 102-years-old, Masse is one of the only people left who were alive during the conflagration that destroyed one-third of the city.

According to Michaud, the worst disaster in Salem’s history began with a small explosion in a leather factory at 57 Boston Street. Winds carried the embers across the hot, dry city where they landed in LaPointe and burned down 1,792 buildings, 400 businesses among them, as well as St. Joseph’s Church and Naumkeag Mills, the city’s largest employer. Most of the mill’s workers were French Canadian.

“Ten thousand French were burned out. The year after the fire, there were 8,000 French people (down from 15,000). It was not until 1950 that the number of French people got back to about 15,000. That year, they built and dedicated a new St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette Street. The church was torn down recently,” Michaud added.

“The French lost their homes and life savings (they kept their money was under mattresses); they lost family photographs from Quebec. People lost touch with each other for weeks and did not know where people went,” Michaud said. “One woman had a newborn just a few days old and she didn’t know where her baby was. The mother was in one hospital and the baby was in the infant’s hospital across town. The nurses did not speak French” so they could not piece it together.

Michaud and the Institute that he founded are great repositories of Salem’s Franco-American history and genealogy. Michaud culled much of the French’s history in Salem by reviewing microfilm of every issue of Le Courrier de Salem, the longest running of seven Franco-American newspapers in Salem. He reviewed 48 years of articles and life events of the French from 1902 to 1950. Michaud publishes excerpts from the paper in a French-English newsletter, called La Revue de Salem, which he has put together three times a year for the past 16 years.

In a Herculean labor of love, Michaud and Institute Treasurer John Kobuszewski (an enthusiast even though he is of Polish descent) catalogued 10,000 names and dates from inscriptions of Franco-Americans in St. Mary’s Cemetery and another 1,155 names and dates from Greenlawn Cemetery. All of this genealogical information is available in the Institute’s library, which located in Michaud’s home in Lynn.

The Salem Public Library often refers questions from across the country to Michaud about the history and genealogy of Salem’s Franco-Americans. Queries have come from as far away as California, according to Kobuszewski.

Michaud grew up and attended French parochial schools in Salem, St. Anne’s grammar school and St. Joseph’s High School. L’Academie St-Joseph, as it was known, educated thousands of French teenagers from 1926 when it was established until it closed in 1980.

Ecole Ste-Anne was established in 1907 and was still bilingual when Michaud attended in the 1950s and 60s. French was spoken in his home, so he did not learn English until he was seven, when he started taking English classes at school.

“There used to be two bilingual high schools and four elementary schools. They became all English-speaking in the 1980s,” said Stauffer, who is of French-Italian heritage. Stauffer attended the Saltonstall School, where she said she heard French spoken by the women who worked in the cafeteria. “It was not uncommon to hear French spoken in Salem,” she commented.
Stauffer’s mother was French and lived on Skerry Street next door to the Carlton School. She attended kindergarten at the Carlton School. “Then the priest said “no” and she had to walk all the way to St. Joseph’s School on Lafayette Street,” Stauffer recalled. “They wanted the tuition.“

Today, the Franco-American’s legacy is still felt in Salem. Many local businesses and officials bearing French names, including former longtime Salem Police Chief Robert St-Pierre. The community, however, has dwindled from nearly half of the city’s population to just 12 percent of the city’s Caucasian population (81 percent) at present.

“The biggest ethnic group in Salem now is the Irish at 23 percent of Caucasians, followed by the Italian at 15.5 percent and the French at 12 percent,” according to Stauffer quoting statistics she found at

At one time, the “French were one out of every three Salem residents and the Irish came close. The Irish had to come across an ocean and were here to stay,” said Michaud. “With the French, there was a lot of going back and forth. Some would come every summer to work and then go back to Quebec for the winter. Some would stay for 10 years.“

Other factors impacted Salem’s French population. “The French began learning English through listening to the radio, then with the advent of cars they could go to other places,” said Michaud. “There were intermarriages after World Wars I and II. The French learned English and moved out of their neighborhoods. They sent to their children to public school instead of the French Catholic schools.”

“Salem is a city of immigrants,” said Stauffer. “Thirty languages are spoken in the city. In the 1970s, every ethnic group had a street festival. It was wonderful. Every weekend during the summer there would be food — French, Polish, Italian, Irish, Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox.“

The Franco-American Institute of Salem, Inc. is keeping alive the heritage of Salem’s Franco-American immigrants. There are 250 members and new members are welcome to join. For information on membership, Franco-American genealogy or history, contact Michaud at


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