French Canadian Interview Project

Bernice (Fortin) Bissaillon of Bourbonnais still lives in the only house she has ever known. Like any knowledgeable woman, Bernice keeps her age a secret, but does reveal that this has been her home since she was six months old.

Bernice is the daughter of Lillie Belisle and Thomas Fortin, both of French descent. Her parents, married in 1912, lived on Wabash Street in Bradley before moving to what is now Bernice's home. As a child Bernice learned French as her first language and, as a devoted Catholic, she received her First Communion in French. It was not until she started to attend Notre Dame Academy that she began to learn the English language. Mrs. Bissaillon attended both grade school and high school at Notre Dame. With the boys and girls kept separate, Bernice proudly graduated high school with only seven other girls in 1937. Unfortunately, Bernice's dad was unable to see her graduate.

Due to a farming accident in 1927, Mr. Fortin was killed on what is known as Route 102. After staying a week at St. Mary's Hospital of Kankakee, Thomas Fortin died. While in school, Bernice had only one sister that died also. Bernice however can recall forming friendships with the Mann family girls that lived close by.

After graduating from Notre Dame, Bernice worked at Carlos (Trummel?) Cleaners where she explains the work as hard and hot. Long hours and straining work made for a hard earned dollar. As an example of the times, Bernice remembers the different pricing in cleaning. With the Great Depression in effect, Carlos Cleaners offered two forms of cleaning, one cheap and, for the few who could afford it, a more expensive cleaning.

Bernice Bissaillon then took on another challenge and joined the Coast Guard during World War II. The name of her division was the Coast Guard Spar, Spar taken from the Latin translation of "always ready". While in the Guard, Bernice was stationed in New York and worked at a factory plant where she made $.69 an hour. Before joining the "Spars" in 1941 Bernice made only a dollar a day.

After her mother's death in 1957, Bernice continued to take care of the house she grew up in. In 1971 Bernice Fortin found her soul mate and married Raymond Bissaillon. While their time together was short, Mrs. Bissiallon calls her years with Raymond, "the ten best years of my life". Mr. Bissaillon died in 1981. Today Bernice keeps busy in her community. She owns and manages her own wedding and costume shop out of her childhood home. Bernice is also active in the VFW, the Bourbonnais Grove Historical Society, and many other organizations where she devotes much of her time, energy, and effort.

For more information on Bernice Bissaillon see the October 27, 1996 issue of Kankakee's The Daily Journal—article entitled "Costumes with Character"; the October 6, 1997 issue of Kankakee's The Daily Journal—article entitled "A Woman's Place: Bourbonnais Woman 'Wanted to Serve'"; the November 11, 2001 issue of Kankakee's The Sunday Journal--article entitled "World War II Veterans to Speak Tuesday at Living and Learning"; and the November 18, 2001 issue of Kankakee's The Sunday Journal—article entitled "WWII Vets Reminisce at YMCA Program."