January 13, 2022
There is no such thing as a cultural backwater. There are, however, under-resourced areas that lie beyond the reach of state institutions and that must blaze their own path. For generations, such was the case of the Upper St. John Valley.
Britain and the United States resolved their longstanding border dispute in 1842, but many years passed before residents of far northern Maine felt the presence of state institutions in their everyday life—a sparse slate of sheriffs and customs officials was, in normal times, the only face of government.
In other words, Valley residents—the majority being of Acadian and French-Canadian heritage—experienced a great deal of autonomy. While linked commercially with the St. Lawrence River valley and southern New Brunswick, they had to organize themselves and create their own institutional framework. In the field of education, such efforts suffered from a distance, the cost of building and maintaining schools, the scarcity of qualified teachers, and the apathy of parents for whom education was well removed from their daily preoccupations.
As Fr. Francis Brassard explained in his master’s thesis (1967), the population long depended on “roving teachers” who provided the rudiments of formal education for a few months at a time before moving to another location. The growing influence of the Roman Catholic Church from the 1840s to the 1890s offered only limited breakthroughs, for the older obstacles remained. It was instead the creation of a local education system supported by the state, in 1872, that advanced the cause of public instruction in Aroostook County. The Maine legislature pledged funds to towns that organized schools and that met a small number of benchmarks. New laws passed in 1889 and 1893 increased resources (notably providing textbooks) and implemented local supervision of the school system.
The broad terms of these laws offered flexibility—and enabled local communities to be creative in their educational arrangements. In other areas of Maine, due to local cultural and religious conditions, a clear separation between public and private (often denominational) schools arose. In the Upper St. John Valley, led by their Catholic clergy, residents increasingly took advantage of state funds, but responded to teacher shortages by hiring nuns and adapted to scarce resources by turning to those of the Catholic Church.
The initiator of this mixed system appears to have been a Belgian priest named Charles Sweron, who long held the reins of the parish in Frenchville. The Quebec-born Arthur Décary, formerly of the Brunswick parish, would follow his lead and invite the Little Franciscans of Mary to teach in Fort Kent’s common schools in 1906.
But it may be Father Joseph Marcoux’s relationship with the Little Franciscans that proves most telling. Marcoux was born in Sainte-Brigide-d’Iberville, in southern Quebec, in 1850. He served as a vicar in Bedford, Farnham, and Saint-Pie; spent many years in Manitoba as a missionary; and, after 1890, successively became pastor of Wallagrass and Eagle Lake in Maine. The Acadian Archives in Fort Kent have partially reconstituted Marcoux’s correspondence with the Little Franciscans from the collections of the motherhouse in Baie Saint-Paul (MCC-00435).
Marcoux helped recruit the sisters of Baie Saint-Paul to establish and staff a hospital in Eagle Lake; he also worked to maintain a positive relationship that would be responsive to the needs of local residents. In 1912, after consultations with Bishop Louis S. Walsh, the nuns’ salary was doubled, the hospital received $2,500 from the diocese for a new annex, and the religious order obtained a new parcel of land from the bishop—who owned all Church property in Maine—for a new convent. Walsh was regularly involved in many financial decisions involving local schools and hospitals. Although his reputation as anti-French outlived him, he easily turned to the Quebec nuns and, with Marcoux, exerted pressure on the religious order to extend services to the local French-heritage population.
That pressure increased over time. In Eagle Lake, the local superintendent of schools informed Marcoux that a public school could be opened the moment two sisters were secured as teaching staff. The town would provide facilities and all learning materials. Marcoux turned to the Little Franciscans and asked for two sisters, one to teach in French, the other in English. Several months later, he asked for a third who would teach music and singing.
Mother Marie-Dominique, the superior in Baie Saint-Paul, did not accept new requests unquestioningly. In the summer of 1917, she highlighted the defective heating in the school and the cold from which sisters suffered in trips between the school and the hospital. By that point, Marcoux was insistently pleading for a “grant” of five teachers; he hoped to replace two laywomen who were not up to parents’ expectations. This seemed to be beyond the capacity of the Franciscans. The superior also categorically refused to accept boarders at the Eagle Lake school, citing prior issues in Wallagrass; if boarders were taken, she bluntly stated, she would recall the nuns to Quebec.
Relations were no doubt still shaky when Marcoux died of influenza in the fall of 1918. It remains, no less, that northern Maine enjoyed a close relationship with Quebec’s Catholic Church through the Little Franciscans, the Daughters of Wisdom, other religious orders, missionaries and pastors, and the logistical and financial support they all provided to our French-heritage communities. That relationship survived even as Maine enacted an English-only education bill the year after Marcoux’s death.
The mixed system of education—ostensibly public, but “entangled” with religious institutions—continued well into the post-World War II era. Of Fort Kent’s St. Louis School, Brassard wrote, in the 1960s:
« L’édifice scolaire et le terrain sur lequel il repose appartiennent à la paroisse catholique romaine de St. Louis, qui relève de la juridiction de l’évêque catholique de Portland. L’évêque loue les bâtiments au district administratif scolaire no. 27 . . . Selon le contrat, la ville n’a l’usage des bâtiments que pendant les heures de classe de l’année scolaire. En effet, dans le contrat de bail, l’évêque se réserve l’usage des bâtiments de 8h20 à 8h55 à des fins d’instruction religieuse.
« Dans la même ville de Fort Kent, la Market Street School, une école primaire publique, présente une situation quelque peu différente, mais tout aussi particulière. Le terrain et les bâtiments appartiennent à l’État, mais chaque année, suite au vote d’une majorité des citoyens à l’assemblée de la ville, le comité de surintendance des écoles loue la propriété à l’évêque catholique de Portland—pour la somme de 1,00$—entre 8h20 et 9h00 chaque jour du calendrier scolaire à des fins d’instruction religieuse.»
Through the process of disestablishment and the aftershocks of the Second Vatican Council, these arrangements would slowly unravel in the last third of the twentieth century. Still, women religious taught alongside laypersons in Fort Kent public schools until 1999.
Beyond the unique cultural landscape of the St. John Valley, the history of schools and hospitals in our region reminds us that despite the American trope of separation of church and state, an equal commitment to religious freedom has created complex relationships between religious and civic institutions. If that is true in many parts of the country, in northern Maine we find a special arrangement that lasted nearly a century—with relatively little controversy.
The Acadian Archives offer access to Father Marcoux’s correspondence with the Little Franciscans, but also to a wealth of local histories and primary sources that trace the complicated history of education in the St. John Valley. For additional information or to schedule an appointment, please reach us at email@example.com or by phone at 207-834-7535.
Patrick Lacroix, Director of Acadian Archives
Aside from the following resources, our library includes broader works about the Catholic Church in Maine, the history of the state and our unique borderland region, and religious education in Quebec. Our Ready Reference files and the finding aid folder belonging to the Marcoux correspondence also include valuable contextual information.