A French-Canadian Search For Self

John Hill
Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
Published By The Providence Journal-Bulletin, Wednesday, March 5, 1997
Providence, RI

Jean-Marie Hebert
Photo by Journal-Bulletin/KATHY BORCHERS
LOOKING FOR LINKS: Jean-Marie Hebert pores over some records at the American-French Genealogical Society, in Woonsocket, while he double-checks a few facts about his ancestors. He has a family listing of 4,000 names stored in his personal computer.

WOONSOCKET - Audrey Tremblay and Rick Rouillard drove from Fall River, Mass., to the First Universalist Church, on Earle Street, and entered the basement to find themselves.

They sat at one of several long cafeteria-style tables, among dozens of other people who were peering at re-bound books and old church records. They were all literally filling in the blanks of their heritages, tracing their family trees back through colonial Quebec, using the library of the American-French Genealogical Society.

"We come every Tuesday," Tremblay said. "We bring a lunch and make a day of it."

The Society's headquarters is in the church at Snow and Earle Streets, but it isn't just a quaint local phenomenon habituated by white-haired Rhode Islanders from northern Rhode Island.

The library attracts - either in person or through its Internet web site - researchers from throughout New England and Quebec, as well as French-Canadians from other parts of the United States.

It isn't just about Woonsocket. Since it opened in 1978, the Society has been scrounging throughout Quebec and the United States for all types of genealogical records.

There are marriage, birth, and baptism records from little churches in isolated villages, death records from funeral homes, and carefully indexed records collected by colleges, universities, and governments, all covering the centuries of French habitation in North America.

The details in some of the records are astonishing. For instance, in one of the books, Society member Sylvia Bartholomy thumbed through the list of churches until she recognized the name of the small church of L'annonciation-du-lac-des-Duex Montagnes, in a village west of Montreal, where her ancestors lived.

The records of the church are not photocopied, but all the information from them has been taken down and printed. In that book she found that Charlotte Sabourin was baptized on Feb. 18, 1741.

And the baptism record listed people present at the ceremony - the priest, the brothers and sisters of the mother and father, including one of her ancestors, Paul Sabourin, who stood in for Charlotte's godfather.

"It's like these people are alive," Bartholomy said.

A big advantage in tracing a French-Canadian genealogy is the way the records treat women. Unlike English records, which often mention mothers and wives only by their first names. French-Canadian records will almost always record the bride's or mother's maiden and married names, making it much easier to track the female side of a family line.

Bartholomy said researchers usually have more trouble tracing their family lines - especially the female lines - from the periods when the families lived in the United States.

Richard Snay
IN PURSUIT: Richard Snay finds a book of records at the American-French Genealogical Society library that he needs in his hunt for some ancestors.

The Society's library is a particularly useful resource because so much is concentrated there. There are no other places that have all the church records for, say, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, all going back to the 1700s.

But if you're French-Canadian and you want to search for your family's roots, you don't have to trek to Quebec; the American-French Genealogical Society has copies or summaries of virtually every record back to the 1700s.

Robert Pelland, a Society member and genealogist who prowls the library helping people find what they are looking for, said in most cases, once a researcher gets into the French-Canadian records, the only thing stopping them from filling a family tree - all 16 lines - is a lack of will.

"After a few visits, they get so involved, it's worse than a drug," Pelland said.

There's a special pride if someone is able to trace their lineage back to a Filles du Roi, 1 of 800 young French women who migrated to Quebec between 1663 and 1673.

Their story is a sort of French-Canadian version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The women were sent to Quebec to marry French soldiers who were staying in the New World.

The soldiers had land and a willingness to work hard, but the countryside was unsettled, and there were no women to marry and start a family to keep the farm going. Meanwhile, back in France, wars had depleted the male population to the point where women outnumbered men.

With their society offering few pleasant options for spinsters, especially poor ones, the women - ages 12 to 26 - accepted offers from King Louis XIV of 50 livre dowries and passage to Quebec.

The women were carefully screened before leaving, and their husbands were equally scrutinized by the nuns who chaperoned the Filles du Roi.

Marriage in the 1700s was not a romantic ideal, Bartholomy said. The bride and groom were looking for someone who could endure the hardships of living in the wilderness, someone with physical and psychological strength.

"These women weren't sitting in a parlor doing needlepoint or playing the harpsichord," Bartholomy said. "They were out cutting down trees, digging ditches. They had the right to inherit. They could enter into contracts."

Imagining what those young women must have thought as they got off the ships that brought them to Quebec is what makes genealogy come alive to Bartholomy.

"When people come here and start searching and seeing all of the choices that were made, I start thinking maybe I should be more careful about things like education," Bartholomy said.

Or, as Tremblay said as she looked at the multiplying family tree that spread before her, "You're a part of everybody that came before you."


The American-French Genealogical Society is at 78 Earle St., Woonsocket, in the basement of the First Universalist Church.

Besides genealogical records, the Society offers conversational French classes.

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