Nashua's French heritage

Eric Drouart, left, president of the French-speaking service club, Club Richelieu of Nashua, joins Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess on Wednesday to raise the Francophone flag.

The Gate City celebrated its French culture on Wednesday, recognizing and honoring what once was the city’s largest ethnic group in the late 1800s.

About 20% of New Hampshire’s population, or an estimated 300,000 residents, are either French Canadian or French American, according to John Tousignant, executive director of the Franco-American Centre in Manchester.

On Wednesday, representatives of the French Consulate in Boston and the Quebec Office in Boston gathered outside Nashua City Hall to raise the Francophone flag, which will fly for one week in honor of International Francophonie Month in March.

“While we obviously have a huge portion of people that are French-Canadian heritage that live in New Hampshire, we also celebrate the 80-plus countries of the world that have French as a first or a second language,” said Tousignant.

French-Canadian immigrants have played a significant role in Nashua and many other cities through the state and New England as they worked in the textile mills and shoe factories so many decades ago, according to Eric Drouart, president of the French-speaking service club Club Richelieu of Nashua.

“In Nashua, we are very proud of our French-Canadian and French-American heritage,” said Mayor Jim Donchess, explaining many members of the city’s Franco-American community continue to make valuable contributions throughout Nashua.

Between 1866 and 1872, more than 2,000 French immigrants made their way to Nashua, many of them working in the mills, he said.

“The city’s first French-Canadian Roman Catholic church, St. Louis De Gonzague, was built in 1873 and French-Canadian immigrant mill workers built the St. Francis Xavier Church in Nashua’s French Hill in 1898,” said Donchess.

A French-language newspaper, L’Impartial, was also founded in Nashua, as well as various French-Catholic schools, orphanages, social clubs and charitable organizations from 1870 to 1890, according to the mayor.

“Nashua would not be the city it is today without its Franco-American community. It is an integral part of Nashua’s history, its present and its future prosperity,” he said while reading a proclamation recognizing March as Francophonie month.

“Nashua is an inclusive city that welcomes all people and cherishes its diverse population.”

Although many French Canadians and French Americans no longer speak French, there are immersion programs at different elementary levels where children can participate in French courses.

“We also have new Franco immigrants who are coming from Western Africa and Haiti,” said Noah Ouellette, education and cultural officer at the Consulate General of France in Boston.

While there once was a lot of discrimination against French Canadians who spoke French, especially in locations such as Maine, those mentalities have started to shift, according to Ouellette, who stressed the significance of having a mix of older and younger generations to relay and preserve the French heritage.

“Historically, so much of Nashua’s economy was built by French Canadians. It is important to recognize that,” he said.

“It is not just an English-speaking world that built this area.”