When I read the obituary about the death of Dr. Claire Quintal, of Worcester, MA, I went to my book shelf to retrieve a copy of the Franco-American anthology she published in 1996, titled, “Steeples and Smokestacks: A Collection of Essays on The Franco-American Experience in New England”. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Quintal in July 2009, when she was in Maine to visit friends and to speak about the essays she collected to publish in the anthology. Subsequently, in the www.mainewriter.com website, I found the original text I wrote, published by me in 2009, after I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Quintal. Moreover, when I located “Steeples and Smokestacks”, I was charmed and surprised to find both a hand written letter and a note addressed to me, thanking me for writing the newspaper article! She wrote to me in cursive on her personal stationary. I had completely forgotten about the correspondence!
This blog includes a repeat text of the article published in the 2009, Franco-American column and a transcription I wrote from one of her personal messages, sent to me after the column was published.
Her obituary was published in Worcester. “Dr. Claire Quintal (1930-2020) of Worcester, died on April 30th in St. Vincent Hospital, two days after her 90th birthday following a brief decline in health. She was renowned as a French scholar, internationally and nationally known speaker, author, editor, and translator.”
In 2009, Dr. Quintal was a speaker in Sanford, Maine. She spoke to the Sanford Historical Society on July 16, 2009, at 7 PM, about the importance of French-Canadians of New England.
The following newspaper column published on July 15, 2009, with the headline titled: “Professor studying decline of French language in Maine”
JULIANA L’HEUREUX / LES FRANCO AMERICAINS: July 15, 2009
French was once widely spoken in Maine’s cities and towns. Now it’s only occasionally heard, except in the St. John Valley. Claire Quintal, a Franco-American writer and retired professor, has some opinions about why this is happening.
U.S. Census data from 2000 shows French is the most common language after English in Maine. Likewise, 25 percent of Maine’s residents identify their heritage as French-Canadian or French.
Maine’s Franco-American heritage is evident by picking up any local telephone book to check out the pages of French names. Numerous Maine heritage sites boast French origins, like Acadia National Park and Bowdoin College. French history predates the arrival of the English in New England by 17 years.
Maine and New England’s Franco-American heritage is inherited from immigrants from Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Acadians began arriving in 1755, as a result of Le Grand Derangement, or the brutal expulsion of the French from Nova Scotia by the British.
Immigration from Quebec was spurred by America’s industrial revolution of the last two centuries. Maine’s proximity to Canada’s French-speaking provinces aided the decision made by thousands of French-Canadians to leave their homes for economic reasons to find work in the United States.
Quintal is a bilingual writer and retired professor from Assumption College in Worcester Mass., who grew up in Central Falls, R.I., speaking French. She is editor of the anthology “Steeples and Smokestacks – A Collection of Essays on The Franco-American Experience in New England.”
At one time, the French language was the key component of the Franco-Americans’ identity, after their devout practices as Roman Catholics, Quintal writes. But the French language is waning because Franco-Americans who grew up speaking French before they learned English are aging.
Perhaps native French speakers are declining because they came to New England too early, Quintal believes.
“We were here before efforts were in place to protect our bilingual heritage,” she said. “We were left to learn English on our own. Voter registration was in English only. Learning English was a matter of economic and social survival.”
More damage was done to inhibit the language when Franco-Americans were wrongly told they did not speak real French, says Quintal.
This language myth prevails to this day. It contributes to the reluctance many Franco-Americans feel about speaking the French they learned at home with their parents and grandparents.
Quebecois French is something like speaking English with a Boston or Texas accent. It’s still French — whether it’s spoken in Haiti, Africa, the Far East, Quebec, Maine or Paris. Undoubtedly, a mixture of Francophone regions developed special accents and colloquialisms, which is the same for English and Spanish.
“Spanish speakers are reasonable about language variations,” said Quintal. “They do not make a fuss about regional accents.”
Quintal will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society, 505 Main St., about the important contributions Franco-Americans made to New England.
The program is free and open to the public. The historical society is handicapped-accessible and air-conditioned. Call 324-2797 for more information.
Juliana L’Heureux can be contacted at: Juliana at MaineWriter.com
I am noting that Dr. Quintal made a point of saying how the Spanish language may be surviving because the native speakers do not appear to be affected by regional accents.
After she spoke, I received this note dated July 24, 2009: Dear Juliana, Given our travels, re faxing my curriculum vitae to you recently, I think it wise to mail you a summary copy for possible future use. Thanks, once again, for your work on behalf of the Franco-American groups. Amities, reconnaissantes, Claire Q
In retrospect, I am certainly grateful to have met Dr. Claire Quintal! She will be missed. Memorial donations may be made to the Dr. Claire Quintal Memorial Scholarship Fund at Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA.