Happy Saint John’s Day! If that phrase doesn’t immediately strike a chord with you, don’t feel too bad; you’re not alone. June 24th is not widely celebrated outside Quebec, where it goes by the secular name of the Fête Nationale (“National Holiday”) – but for more than a century, towns and cities across Maine and New England celebrated La Saint-Jean with bold displays of Franco-American pride. The tradition of holding a national celebration for French Canadians on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist dates back to Montréal in 1834. Having witnessed the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations of Irish immigrants to the city, a group of French Canadians determined to hold their own demonstration of ethnic identity and pride.
The hundreds of thousands of Québécois who came to the United States brought the tradition with them in the later 19th century, and in some parts of New England, large celebrations persisted through the 1970s and 80s. (Today you can still attend some smaller gatherings across the region). Why, exactly, Saint Patrick’s Day became a national American celebration while Saint John’s Day fizzled, is not clear. But for a long time the Franco-American holiday was the biggest festival of the year in cities like Lewiston, Biddeford and Waterville:
The tricolor waved, but above it and ahead of it in the breeze that blew and in the procession of loyal French-Americans that has paraded the streets of Lewiston and Auburn today, the Stars and Stripes, the banner of their adopted land, has gleamed like the star of progress…Thousands of the loyal citizens of this land whose ancestry is from the banks of the St. Lawrence, have marched under the green arches along our gaily-decorated streets to-day. It has been a great and worthy celebration because there has been something to celebrate – the progress of a people in a new world.
Lewiston and Auburn have seen no fairer spectacle than to-day’s – the beautiful procession, the magnificent decorations, the city in gala array…It has been an unqualified success and time and money have been freely lavished to make the day what it has been – one of the most memorable in the history of Lewiston and Auburn.
The Journal’s account of the 1897 celebration is a good example of the practices and themes of La Saint Jean as it was celebrated in Maine from the 1870s through the late 20th century. This particular occasion coincided with the 25th anniversary of Lewiston’s French-Canadian national society, the Intitut Jacques-Cartier, which had initially been founded in 1872 to raise funds for the first French-Canadian parish church in Lewiston, but which also formed the backbone of the community’s identity.
The Journal makes it clear that the event was not just an attraction for Franco-Americans. Yankees and people of all ethnicities in the cities turned out, as well as visitors from other Franco-American communities across Maine. The paper marvels at the “thousands of loyal French-American Citizens” in the parade, as well as the “dozen bands of music and every city in Maine represented.” Even the stores and mills – in which the majority of the Franco-American population worked – were closed for the day. Quite a feat in an era in which paid holidays for workers were all but unknown.
More than the parade itself, however, the Journal described the growth and prosperity of the Franco-American population in Lewiston-Auburn. In the spirit of a day in which the Star Spangled Banner flew alongside the French Tricolor, the Journal ebulliently heaped praise on the cities’ Franco-Americans (which by this time comprised close to half the population of Lewiston, and a significant portion of Auburn’s). In contrast to the fears many Americans held then (and hold today) about immigrants, this community of “aliens” had “become part of the social fibre of our people – fellow citizens true and tried, respected honored and esteemed.” From a population initially composed of migratory mill hands who aimed at short-term employment, the community had grown to include “land-owners, business men, builders, traders, artisans and professional men and women…editors, doctors, lawyers, contractors, property owners and men of municipal counsel and affairs.” The Franco-Americans of the Twin Cities, as elsewhere in the US, were keen to distinguish themselves as being both French-Canadian (“Canadien”) and American at the same time.
As Dr. Louis Martel, the founder of the Institut Jacques-Cartier put it, “We French Canadians love the traditions and tongue of old France, but we are true Americans and love America best.” They encouraged each other to become American citizens, but not to give up their French language, nor to stop thinking of themselves as Canadiens. Walking this line must have been difficult, especially during times of hostility towards immigrants, and pressure to assimilate, but Franco-Americans preserved – in a struggle they called la survivance (“the survival”).
Even by 1897, some thirty or so years into the life of the immigrant community, there were a multitude of organziations designed to support this effort. Aside from the Institut Jacques-Cartier, there were numerous other social organizations – the Union St. Joseph, and the Association Saint Dominique, something of an equivalent to the (protestant) YMCA. Cultural organizations like the Club Musicale-Litteraire and the Cercle Papineau encouraged the arts and theater, while Le Messager, a French-language newspaper and publishing house, kept citizens informed and encouraged civic engagement. All were buttressed by the presence of the Parish of Saints Peter & Paul, the French national parish in Lewiston, which was run by a monastic order, the Dominican Brothers. Women religious from France and Canada also educated the community’s children, ensuring culture, language and morals were passed on to new generations.
The community wasn’t just concerned with preserving the past, however. The Sisters of Charity of St. Hyacinthe had established Maine’s first hospital, St. Mary’s, in 1888, and the church of Sts. Peter & Paul contained a modern steam plant that allowed it to generate electrical power from its heating system. In years to come, there would be a French-language radio station, as well as a recording studio, and one of the earliest automobile retailers in Maine (Levasseur Pontiac, 1919).
Today, we live in an age in which multiculturalism has become acceptable, and even celebrated. There are still those who advocate for assimilation over retaining what makes your family or neighborhood unique, but on the whole, Americans are more curious about other cultures than ever before (the present election season mood notwithstanding). So it’s important to remember, in the age of St. Paddy’s Day, Pride Month, Black History Month, Hannukah and Cinquo de Mayo, that each of these is much more than a party. Every celebration of identity began as a defiant statement of a community’s presence in American life – “we’re here to stay.” Innumerable groups have had to battle prejudice – both metaphorically and literally – to earn acceptance in American society, and Franco-Americans are just one example.
Bonne Saint-Jean, everyone!
Lewiston’s Franco Center is holding a Saint Jean-Baptiste Day celebration June 24th.
You can learn more about specific St John’s Day traditions in this online exhibit.
Be sure to read through the Lewiston Evening Journal article in full – it’s a detailed and thorough account of the community in 1897.
 Celebrating the feast day itself dates back to the earliest days of Christianity in France, and early French Canadians celebrated in various ways from the time of their arrival in Canada – but it was only in 1834 that the celebrations became an explicit expression of national identity.
 In 1908, Pope Pius X designated St John the Baptist the patron saint of French Canadians. Before this, St. Joseph was technically the Patron Saint of Canada. Why the June 24th holiday was chosen as the “national day” over the feast of St. Joseph is not clear.