French Institute History

Founded by a French religious order, the Augustinians of the Assumption, as a preparatory school and college for men, Assumption College’s original goal was to provide an education for the French-speaking population of New England.  Beginning in the mid-1800s, large numbers of French-Canadian immigrants settled in New England to work in the textile mills and at other jobs associated with the industrial revolution.  By 1900, Worcester, Massachusetts had 15,300 residents of French-Canadian descent, and these Franco-Americans made up 13 per cent of the city’s population.  There were other, even larger Franco-American communities in the nearby towns of Fall River, Lowell, and Holyoke, Massachusetts; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  The College’s earliest mission was to promote the priesthood as a vocation and to preserve French-Canadian culture.  For the first 50 years of its existence, student enrollment was small, all male, and primarily Franco-American.  At its inception, classes were taught in French by French and Belgian priests, and the curriculum remained bilingual until the mid-1950s.

The prominent place of French language, literature, and culture gradually declined at Assumption after World War II.  The transition to educating students in English began in 1952, as decreased enrollments led to a separate track for students not interested in the bilingual curriculum.  The institutional changes of the 1950s reflected both the growing assimilation of the Franco-American community, as the French language was not being passed to the next generation, and the growing appeal of the College to students of other ethnic groups.  In 1960, French ceased to be a requirement for Assumption graduates, and from then on, all courses except French classes were taught in English.  Today, although the College (co-educational since 1969) continues to boast a lively French program, the founding tradition of French culture is promoted primarily through the French Institute, established in 1979 as an integral part of Assumption College.

The French Institute was founded by Father Wilfrid J. Dufault, A.A., the late chancellor emeritus of the College, and Dr. Claire Quintal, founding director emerita, in order to honor the memory of the French heritage of Assumption College and our region.  Although its main goals are to foster the preservation and study of French ethnicity on this continent, the name French Institute (Institut français) was chosen for its ability to encompass the entire francophone world.

The personal collection of Dr. Claire Quintal formed the early nucleus of the French Institute holdings.  The donation of their fine library by the Fall River Dominicans greatly enhanced the Institute’s book collection, which also grew with gifts of duplicate books by ACA Assurance (formerly the Association Canado-Américaine) and the Union Saint-Jean-Baptiste d’Amérique (now part of Catholic Financial Life).  From 2003 to 2005, book donations by Dr. Armand Chartier, Judge Arthur L. Eno, Dr. Gerard Brault, and others expanded our library significantly.  Documents and artifacts include rich private archives donated by the Jobin-Thibodeau family, the estate of Dr. Paul Chassé, and the late Wilfrid J. Michaud, Jr.  In 2004, the Institute’s collection was complemented by the arrival on campus of the Mallet Library of the Union Saint-Jean-Baptiste d’Amérique, a magnificent collection of Franco- and Native-Americana begun by a successful Franco-American immigrant, Major Edmond Mallet, in the late 19th century.  Most recently, the French Institute has welcomed the historical archives of the American province of the Religious of Jesus and Mary as well as the archives of the Association Canado-Américaine.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the French Institute published conference proceedings on French-Canadian immigrants to the United States, the Little Canadas of New England, and Franco-American journalism, folklore, education, literature, religion, and women.  It also provided English translations of several key texts to make them readily available to non-French speakers, including The Beginnings of the Franco-American Colony in Woonsocket, Rhode Island by  Marie-Louise Bonier, The Franco-Americans of New England: A History, by Dr. Armand Chartier, and the collection Steeples and Smokestacks: The Franco-American Experience in New England, edited by Dr. Claire Quintal and now in its second edition.