Lowell’s Franco American School and its Connection to my Family History

Lowell’s Irish and French Canadian populations long had an uneasy relationship.  I grew up hearing about it, a century after the French Canadians first starting appearing in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1870s.  By the time the French Canadians began arriving in Lowell, the Irish Catholics – who had started appearing a generation earlier – had been winning some hard-fought political control over their circumstances and had started arguing for labor reform in the city’s textile mills.  The French Canadians, newly arrived to Lowell, were not looking to jeopardize their chances of finding employment in the mills by becoming involved in the Irish efforts at labor reform.  As a result, the Irish viewed the French Canadians as strike breakers, and the French Canadians resented the Irish for making their quest for lasting and steady employment more difficult.

French Canadian family arriving from Montreal, 1913 (Via Wikimedia Commons, via Popular Science Monthly, Volume 83)

Gradually, as newer waves of emigrants arrived – among them the Greeks, Polish and Portuguese – the resentment between the Irish and French Canadians began to ebb as they formed an uneasy alliance against these newer groups who, like them before, so needed work that they were willing to act as ‘strike breakers’ when labor discussions turned toward reform in the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.  But, the tensions never really faded away entirely.

As both populations became ‘more American’, and less ‘Irish’ or ‘French Canadian’, their US-born children almost began to forget about the original divides between the two groups.  Almost.  Many mill town family trees, mine included, show evidence of marriages uniting children of the Irish with children of the French Canadians.

When Peter Foisy, of French Canadian descent, married my Great Aunt Catherine McNamara, of Irish Catholic descent, in the mid-1920s, a sense of scandal rocked the family – for a few reasons.  He was older, by more than 20 years.  He was divorced.  And – he was French Canadian – one of ‘them’.  For similar reasons, a sense of scandal also rocked his family, when their son divorced his wife to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Soon after their marriage, Catherine became pregnant – which wasn’t really a surprise to anyone since Peter had left his first wife since she hadn’t wanted children.  Their daughter, my Aunt Emily, was born in 1927, and the family lived happily, until 1929, when Peter died at the age of 47.  My Aunt Emily, was just two years old.

Grandma Foisy - the only photo I've seen of her.
Grandma Foisy – the only photo I’ve seen of her.

Decades later, I grew up hearing the story of how Aunt Emily’s French-Canadian grandmother tried to convince my aunt’s newly widowed mother to place her in the Franco American Orphanage in the months after her father’s death.  The stories led me to envision this woman as a ‘wicked witch’ sort of grandmother.  And, years later, when I found her photograph among my aunt’s things, that image wasn’t exactly disproven.

The Franco American School, as seen from Pawtucket Street, (By Emw, via Wikimedia Commons)
English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist
English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The orphanage, to me, as a child hearing the story, seemed like it would have been a big, scary, lonely place to send a newly fatherless toddler in the late 1920s.  Now, after the passage of a few decades and a chance to further study the Franco American Orphanage, it turns out that it wasn’t such a desolate, lonely place after all.  The original building, shown above, dates to the 1870s and was built for Frederick Ayer, one of Lowell’s most prominent nineteenth-century businessmen.  Today, his former estate, once known as the Ayer estate and later as the Franco American Orphanage and School quickly became one of Lowell’s most recognizable landmarks on the corner of Mammoth Road and Pawtucket Streets.  Frederick Ayer, in life, was a successful Lowell businessman whose business pursuits included partnering with his equally well-known brother, J.C. Ayer, in his patent medicine business.

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell's Market Street.  On the building's Central Street side, the company's painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author.  Oct. 2011)
The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell’s Market Street. On the building’s Central Street side, the company’s painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author. Oct. 2011)

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate bought the Ayer estate in 1908 and soon received Cardinal O’Connell‘s blessing to open an orphanage to serve the orphans of the city’s growing Franco American population.  Father Joseph Campeau, OMI, who was pastor at St. Joseph’s parish, helped found the orphanage, with the help of the Sisters of Charity.  They had their work cut out for them, trying to refurbish the estate and turn it into an orphanage and school.  The estate had been vacant since 1890, when Ayer had moved to Boston.  In the end, they succeeded in renovating the estate, and the nuns welcomed the orphanage’s first sixteen orphans on October 15, 1908.

The orphanage prospered, and as times changed, it began to admit day students as early as the 1950s.  The number of day students continued to grow through the 1960s, when the Franco American Orphanage officially became the Franco American School in 1963.  Fifteen years later, in 1978, the Franco American School discontinued its boarding school services and moved to the day-student-only format that continues through today.

By the time I came around, the Franco American School had stood on Lowell’s Pawtucket Street for decades, where it still provides a Catholic education to the city’s youth.  Although additions have been added to the original Ayer estate over the years, the front building, the original, still retains much of its original historical charm.  Fortunately, very little remains today of that initial resentment between Lowell’s earliest Irish and French Canadian populations, except when recalled in family stories and old newspaper articles.  My aunt passed away in 2004, and never lost pride in either heritage – although I think she more readily claimed her Irish Catholic background just to spite that French Canadian grandmother who almost sent her to the orphanage all those years ago.

15 thoughts on “Lowell’s Franco American School and its Connection to my Family History

  1. Trying to find some form of pictures or documents on my mother who was in the orhanage from 1945to 1950s her name was Shirley a pajari

    1. I’m curious Brenda, if you ever found pictures. I’m trying to find pictures as well from 1945-1951 at the Franco American school and orphanage in Lowell, Massachusetts.

      1. Hello Rhonda, My name is Christian Pierre I not sure if this will help you i have pictures from 1954 at Franco American Orphanage… if you go on facebook and find my name you can see pictures that i put on face book… this coming Monday i plan on going to Lowell Mass and stop in and walk around the yard where i was living at the time at this Orphanage…i made my Communion in 1957

  2. I’m researching my family tree. I know that my grandmother’s half sister was in the FA orphanage, as her name appears on the 1910 Census when she was 11. I thought that she would have been left there as an infant, but if the orphanage didn’t open until 1908, then I guess not. How do I find out if she was one of the original 16 orphans, or how do I find out when she was brought there?

  3. grandfather Paul N. Cossette active in Orphanage,Credit Union, and Qyonset Huts. Other detail later. thank you.

  4. I am also looking for records for orphans before 1908. I believe my father may have been adopted from that facility.

    1. When I go to this website, which section of the site should I search? I’m having no luck 😕

  5. Great stuff. I heard similar stories growing up in Lawrence. I invite you to check out my historical &genealogical blog for the Greater Lawrence and Merrimack Valley/Essex County area. http://www.ofaplace.com

  6. My brother and I were sent to St. Joseph’s Franco-american orphanage from 1948 to 1949. Everyone there spoke French. We only spoke English and had to learn fast. I came with a bi-lingual friend who helped tremendously. My memories are few but pleasant. I made friends and the nuns were very good to me, brushing and curling my hair, and giving me little privileges because I was so homesick. I remember how much that helped me acclimate.

  7. My Great Aunts were Nuns from the Sisters of Charity Quebec… They were working at the Orphanage when I was a kid…

  8. I was at the orphanage from 1952 – 1957 . My parents took me out when my sister was born in 1957. I finished the 4th grade in 1957. Would like to find pictures of them years. I did find one when my cousin Joe made his 1st communion. He left before me. Any info and photos would be grateful. You can find me on Facebook.

  9. I sure do remember that hateful place.. My mother had no one to watch my sister and I while she worked and had to put us there. She paid them every month for our care. The first thing they did was cut our hair without my mothers knowledge. The nuns were hateful and cruel. I remember one girl had issues with bed wetting and they would not let her see her parents on visiting days. I tried to help her but we got caught and I could not see my mom on that day either. I had a nervous tick with my neck from stress and the nuns made me bend over the bathtub and hit me with a paddle, then they made me sit on the floor in front of the podium until morning. my sister was 5 and I was 8. Instead of trying to help they made the tick worse, I do not know how I survived that place, mom finally found a sitter and took us away. SOOOOO glad we about spent about a year there. My sister and I were separated as soon as mom left. She was % and she has bad memories also. There are a lot more unpleasant memories about that place but will end here.

  10. I remember my sister who was 5 and myself who was 8 had to go there because my mother had to work and could not find a sitter for 4 children. My mothers sister took in my other sister and brother. But could not take my sister and I as she ad 2 children of her own. The nuns were extremely cruel and I do mean cruel. There are no good memories of that place for either my sister or I. GOD has a place in hell for those nuns that were cruel. We were so little and scared to death being separated from mom and they only made the situation worse. I had a nervous tick in my neck and they had me bend over a bathtub to beat me with a wooden paddle and sit all night on the floor in front of the podium after beating me. The nervous tick got worse. They cut all our hair off and we looked like boys. Mom was so upset set she literally cried to see what thewy had done. She was paying them each month for us to be there and the abuse we received was unmentionable. Other girls were treated just as bad. One poor girl had not been able to see her mom because for months as she wet the bed. I will stop here as I do mnot want this to be to long of a comment.

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