The Museum of Old Newbury will kick off its spring program series with the premier screening of local historian Jean Foley Doyle's latest documentary Newburyport’s French Canadian Community. The film will be shown at Newburyport's Senior Community Center (331 High Street) on Wednesday, March 6 at 7:00pm, with a reception preceding at 6:30. The program is free and open to the public, and seating will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis with doors opening at 6:30pm.
Over the past five years, Doyle has created three other documentary films focusing on different aspects of local history. Each has been a community effort, featuring photographs from a number of institutions and family collections, interviews with local people, and even the occasional performance by local musicians. Newburyport’s French Canadian Community promises to continue in the same tradition, highlighting and personalizing a piece of local history that has often been overlooked. John Dodge, Marcia Foley, and Ron Ziemba lent their talents to the project in researching various topics and narrating portions of the film, while editing and production were completed by Caterina Masia Fine Films in collaboration with the Greater Newburyport NCM Hub.
Newburyport’s French Canadian community took root in the 1890s, when farmers from Quebec arrived to work in Newburyport’s mills and factories during the winter months. Although some workers stayed only seasonally, many felt they had better opportunities in Newburyport than in Canada, and decided to stay. Meanwhile, Newburyport’s shoe factories were thriving, and provided jobs for many newly arrived immigrants to Newburyport, including French Canadians.
The rise and fall of the shoe industry featured prominently in the lives of those who came to work in its factories. The industry boomed in the last decade of the 19th century, with upwards of 20 “boot and shoe makers” listed in city directories for 1894-1895. By the 1930s, however, changing styles and workers’ strikes signaled the industry’s demise. As featured in the film, rarely seen photographs of shoe factory workers, owners, the factories themselves, and the shoes they produced highlight this important local business.
French Canadians working in shoe factories and other industries soon found themselves longing for the familiarity and camaraderie of the French Catholic churches they had left behind in Canada. In 1904, St. Aloysius de Gonzaga was erected on Federal Street, and the church and its accompanying school served as the focal point of the community’s social and spiritual life for decades. In addition to church activities, families enjoyed many popular pastimes of the era, including bicycle rides, trips to the beach at Plum Island, and seeing movies at local theaters.
Though the church on Federal Street closed its doors in 1999, and the shoe factories were shuttered long before then, French Canadian families left their mark on Newburyport’s history, and many of their descendants continue to call the city home today.