French Canadian Interview Project

Interview with Bernice (Fortin)  Bissaillion on November 29, 2000 at Bernice's home in Bourbonnais, Illinois.  The Western Civilization course student interviewers were Melody Odell and Erica Benoit.

The videotape and audiotape that correlate with this transcript are available in the Kankakee Community College Learning Resource Center. The videotape #V-RH 15 is on reserve. The audiotape "HIST INT #3 can be checked out of the LRC for one week.

Bernice: Marriage Certificate--1912 they were married at St. Rose Church in Kankakee. See that has never changed color. That's history right there. My mother's name was Lillie Belisle, that's French, and then she married Thomas Fortin-that's French.

Interviewer: Do you still speak French?

Bernice: Well, I have to stop and think, you know, but when I started school I could not speak a word of English.

Interviewer: And they all spoke English here? I mean that the people that were here when you came here.

Bernice: No, at that time, Bourbonnais was French, a French town. When I started school, I couldn't speak a word of English. My folks spoke French.

Interviewer: Where did you go to school at? Where did you start school?

Bernice: Right here at Notre Dame Academy.

Interviewer: Oh, I read about that in school.

Bernice: Notre Dame Academy, it was a grade school and a high school.

Interviewer: Yeah, we just learned that in class.

Bernice: Sure you did. I was six years old when I started school and I had some friends, the Mann girls, who lived down the street (I think the house that they lived in is gone). There is only one original house that is right on the street. That is it right on the sidewalk, all the way up there, that's the only original house further down; and then of course, next door here, this is John Spence's, and then the one next to him-that house was there, and the one next door that was Marie Stutz , but that was Lamie's that lived there, I always called them Aunt Emma and Uncle Anthony [Bernice speaks French]. I can still see Aunt Emma sitting in her rocking chair, there was a long window there, in the front of the house and I can still see her in this tall rocking chair.

So anyway, the Mann girls that lived down the street, they were quite a bit older than I, so then when I started school, at six years old, they would stop by and pick me up and of course we walked. We used our legs in those days. We didn't ride on buses like they do today. The people today at the age of 30 will not be able to walk. Right? (laughs)  She looks at me like I'm crazy.

Anyway, one morning we were walking down the street and they were  French, but they were talking in English. So one of them had said they were talking about "in the morning." So I said to them, What does that mean "in the morning?" I didn't know what it meant. I was French. And we were walking down the street and these friends of mine picked me up and we were walking to school at 6:00 am - those days we didn't ride buses, we used our legs - and then when we got to Notre Dame Convent, we walked five flights of stairs. The first grades were on the top floor, five flights of stairs--we walked to school.

Interviewer: Now how many kids were in that school? How many children were there in your grade?

Bernice: Oh well, I don't remember. There was a good__oh yes, .. they had the boys' school. The boys' school was on the corner across from the church on the corner of Roy and Marsile , that was the boys' school right there . And they started going there and they were taught by two Sisters of Notre Dame.

Interviewer: I read about that.

Bernice: Yeah, I am sure that you have. Then of course it was all, well I can't tell you exactly the years, and then it became a public school. It was a public school taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame.

Interviewer: So when did your family first come here?

Bernice: Well, my folks moved here, in this house when I was six-months old. I was born in Bradley, on Wabash. It was the only home I have ever known.

Interviewer: This one?

Bernice: Mm-hmm right. Yes, it's the old homestead.

Interviewer: Most people don't stay in one spot.

Bernice: No, and I'm very proud of it, yes. And I am the last of my family, that is when my mother passed away, in 1957. It was just 43 years ago last week Thanksgiving, that she was laid out on Thanksgiving Day, at what was Rambo's in Bradley, which is now Schrefflers.

Interviewer: So you have seen a lot of changes in the years.

Bernice: Oh yes, quite a few! Absolutely! Quite a few. Now are you the one that called me?

Interviewer: No.

Bernice: Who was it that called me?

Interviewer: No, Amanda, she's not here yet.

Bernice: Oh, you mean there's another one? (laughs)

Interviewer: So tell us about Gleaners [Life Insurance Company].

Bernice: Ok.

Interviewer: When did it...?

Bernice: Well the Gleaners now as I say is a not for profit life insurance, in 1939, my mother was living at the time, and I wasn't a Gleaner, it never occurred to us at the time, and I had heard of the Moose, because my friend, the Messier girls-who lived across the creek-and of course their dad belonged to the Moose, because they had a family of like 16 children, yes, and you see the Moose Heart before. You know it's a home for children who have either lost their parents or they are a one parent family, and admission, (now they even admit a lot of children who are in need and they are not, it is not an orphanage Moose Heart).

Interviewer: Where was that?

Bernice: It's just northwest of Chicago, near Aurora. That's the Moose now. But the Gleaners, in 1939, my mother was living here and a man had come to the door and my mother went to the door, and he said to my mother, I don't know if we're related, but my name is Fortin. He said, I am representative for the Gleaner Life Insurance. He was selling insurance, so she let him in and he started explaining what the Gleaners life insurance was and then he said they had drill teams, and all that you know, and I came and I looked at what he was showing her, of course insurance at that time a $500 policy, that was a lot of insurance in 1939. The premium was only like $12.50 every three months.

Interviewer: That was a lot of money back then.

Bernice: Well you better believe it. Yes. So then I saw this drill team, and I thought, oh, boy, that's for me, I always loved drilling, and stuff like that. I was just out of grade school, or I was still in grade school. So he sold my mother a policy, Gleaner Life Insurance.

Interviewer: And you still have it?

Bernice: Oh yes, of course I have both. Well, I sold it and bought other policies too, over the years, like a 20 year life and then. Of course, my policy matured many years ago, I got a bigger one, but of course I have always been an active Gleaner and they used to have two meetings at that time. Two meetings a month, a social meeting and a business meeting.

And we used to meet in Old St. Joseph's hall up on west Court Street. I think that building is still there. West Court hasn't changed too much, that building is still there on the west side of the street. We used to meet up there. And then we, I think we moved over to the KC hall, we met there for years, but it's a not for profit life insurance and see-these not for profit fraternal organizations a few years back had to go to Washington and fight to get an exemption from paying the taxes and, like the KC's, are a not for profit insurance, the Woodman's, I'm sure you have heard of them- Woodman - I would say that they are-well I have a list of them all somewhere-and today what you have to do, is you have to do all of this volunteer work, it's very complicated for our secretaries, because all of this has to be turned in monthly to the home office in Adrian, Michigan, and we are like given a dollar--like going to funeral homes, that is visiting with the bereaved then we do, anyway, it's---pick that book up there.

Interviewer: This one?

Bernice: Yeah...for the Future it's a very, very interesting book and that's the history, and back in 1994 we celebrated our centennial. We went up to Mackinaw Island and we had our meeting there. It's a very interesting story. The Gleaners that used to be for actually, it was farmers, you know Gleaners, you've seen the pictures of the Gleaners in the Bible?

Interviewer: Yes mmmhhh.  

Bernice: Right, that's where it comes from the name of the Gleaner. But, when I first joined, October 1993.

Interviewer: So, what subjects did you study at school, when you were at Notre Dame?

Bernice: Oh, well, regular 8th grade and then I went to high school.

Interviewer: At the same school?

Interviewer: That's where you learned to speak English?

Bernice: Oh, well, I learned in grade school. I even made my first communion in French. Father, E. J. Supernant Yes, We had English and French. It doesn't seem possible, does it?

Interviewer: No.

Bernice: It's possible. Are any of you of French descent? here? What's your last name?

Interviewer: Renee Guenette.

Bernice: Renee, oh my. I didn't recognize you!

Interviewer: You didn't recognize me?

Bernice: Well, Renee, my little paper girl. Good Lord. Now see? My little paper girl? [Bernice speaks to another or the interviewers] Benoit? Which Benoit?

Interviewer: Most of my family doesn't live around here.

Bernice: Where are they from?

Interviewer: Dwyer Benoit, is my grandfather.

Bernice: Who?

Interviewer: Dwyer.

Bernice: Oh yeah, Dwyer. Yes,

Interviewer: Yes, that's my grandfather.

Bernice: Ok, and they are from Kankakee?

Interviewer: Yes, he lived in Chebanse most of his life, but now he lives in Bradley.

Interviewer: What occupations have you had? In your life?

Interviewer: What you've done mostly?

Bernice: Well of course I was in the service.

Interviewer: Oh, you were? I didn't know that.

Interviewer: You were in the service?

Bernice: Yes. I was in the Coast Guard Spar in World War II. You know where we got our name?

Interviewer: No.

Bernice: Spar. Ok, the motto of the Coast Guard is "always ready" semper paratus. Which means, always ready. SPAR, that's where we got our name. But, when I got out of school there was nothing really to be had. I got a job at Trummel's Cleaners on the south side. And that was hard work. Made a dollar a day. And we worked. I worked there about three years and then war broke out and Sanderson Porter came to Elwood with a war plan. So anyway, I went and put in an application over there and was hired.

Interviewer: Now what job did you do?

Bernice: I worked in Plant 5. That was the detonator plant.

Interviewer: Was it dangerous?

Bernice: Well, ours wasn't too bad, but I had just started there and of course we worked three shifts, which was in 1941, I think. I had just started out there for a short while when they had a plant that blew up out there. Plant 2 had blown up. It was real bad. In fact we had just come home and we made little detonators; some of those plants out there were real bad. They worked with TNT and their skin turned yellow. You probably heard about those plants. And then we were making 69 cents an hour, which was a lot of money.

That's why I left the Trummel Cleaners. Of course at the cleaners I learned to spot clothes and then I ended up running the big presses. That was very, very hard work. Hot in the summer time. And then at that time they had two prices of cleaning. The cheap cleaning and expensive cleaning. Yes--because people were so poor.

Interviewer: What was the difference between the two?

Bernice: Well, they (cheap cleaning) wouldn't get all the stuff out; it would just be run through the cleaning. Anyway I think the low price was maybe 69 cents on a dress or so, yeah. It was just very rare.

Interviewer: So there weren't that many jobs?

Bernice: NO, nothing.

Interviewer: Nothing?

Bernice: Nothing to be had. No. I mean I didn't want to take shorthand. I never wanted to be any body's secretary; that I did not care for. But well of course, in high school I had taken bookkeeping. I was a very good bookkeeper; I've always liked bookkeeping. I had accounting in high school, and I had algebra, and geometry, my marks were way up. As soon as I dropped mathematics, it went down. Mathematics has always been my favorite.

Bernice: What do you take?

Interviewer: Actually I would have to say mathematics is my favorite subject.

Bernice: Mathematics, oh that's good.

Interviewer: I plan on teaching it actually.

Bernice: Oh, well wonderful. And then we had St. Viator's College was there at the time. We'd have a couple of teachers that would come over and teach us from the St. Viator's College, part time or something like that.

Bernice: And of course I always liked drama. That was my favorite.

Interviewer: Was it really?

Bernice: Oh yes, we put on a lot of good plays at Notre Dame.

Interviewer: Is that what you did for entertainment? Is that what you did?

Bernice: Well, that was one of our subjects. You know.

Interviewer: One of your subjects?

Bernice: Yes, just like English.

Interviewer: What dramas did you perform in?

Bernice: We did an Old Fashioned Girl, Louisa May Alcott's Old Fashioned Girl. Sister St. Francis was our teacher. Over there they have all kinds of Shakespeare.

Interviewer: You had all of the classes.

Bernice: Oh yes, and then all of those books there, when I was in the service in New York I got involved in a book club. That's how I got all of those books there. Of course I loved to read when I was a kid. I used to, well they say we were poor, after my father died. My father was killed in a farm accident, in 1927.

Interviewer: Here?

Bernice: Yes, he was going to a couple of farms out there on Route 102...there were runaway horses.

Interviewer: Runaway horses?

Bernice: Yes, he was farming with horses. She (Renee) knows all about that, she has heard it all before. He was farming a couple of little farms out there, the weather had been bad, it was in June and they had been working on Sunday, and he was coming home at night and there was a culvert coming out of the field. He was on the riding plow and coming across the little ditch, there wasn't a culvert there, there should have been a culvert over it, and coming across the ditch the horses got frightened and they ran away and my dad fell off the plow and he was dragged 25 feet. They picked him up and brought him to St. Mary's, and he lived for a week after that, but then he died.

Interviewer: So St. Mary's was small then?

Bernice: That's all there was. There was just St. Mary's. There was no choice.

Bernice: So of course I took all the courses through high school. I graduated; well there was only eight in our graduating class.

Interviewer: Eight?

Bernice: We graduated in white caps and gowns. 

Interviewer: Boys and girls? No, wait there were only girls.

Bernice: It was just the girls.

Interviewer: So didn't you kind of miss the boys? Now we have boys and girls in the same school.

Bernice: I know.

Interviewer: It was what you were used to, right? 

Bernice: Well, yeah. I'm trying to think.

Interviewer: Did you go to dances together?

Bernice: We didn't have dances.

Interviewer: Oh, you didn't have dances.

Bernice: It was not the world of today. I'm trying to think. Of course we played basketball. See how I got so interested in this also, we had an elocution teacher ---Bruel Danforth, I don't know if you've ever heard of her, she lived in Kankakee. You came here when? Where did you come from?

Interviewer: Nebraska.

Bernice: Where in Nebraska.

Interviewer: Omaha.

Bernice: Omaha, Nebraska. Good old Nebraska. No she was an elocution teacher in Kankakee, and she would come and teach us elocution. It was, she must have been a volunteer, she taught us and I was always interested in drama. So how I got started in the costume business, I went to school in Chicago, after I came out of the service, I went in 1943 and I came out in 1947. I went into the service on July 7, 1943 and I came out May 22, 1946. Yeah, 1946.

Interviewer: Did I see that flapper dress?

Bernice: Yeah, well...

Interviewer: Did you make that flapper dress?

Bernice: Well, I started my costume shop, I had a good friend in Chicago that...well I've got to show you. There was a big write-up in the paper here about two years ago. Let me show you that, it might help you.

Interviewer: Do you have any questions?

Bernice: There are some pictures of it. Right there, and the petunias, she loved petunias, it was in that front little piece. Those are the old fashioned petunias.

Interviewer: Did you have any sisters? Or were you an only child.

Bernice: No, I had a sister, but she passed away.

Interviewer: So it was just the two of you?

Bernice: Yes.

[Bernice talks about her Charlie Brown Christmas tree]

Bernice: You girls don't forget me when you're looking for Prom dresses. I'm still here you know.

Interviewer: Thank you for these.

Bernice: Or would you prefer the picture itself?

Interviewer: You have the picture?

Bernice: Yes, I have this picture here.

Bernice: Sure. She had taken it to the Journal. It was Fischer who had done it.

Interviewer: Oh, Lin Fischer, I know her.

Bernice: Yes, she had done the story. It was very good. You know when she had come to interview me; she said she had got her wedding dress from me you know.

Interviewer: Oh she did?

Bernice: Yes, years and years ago. She was working for the Journal part-time years ago. Yes, I get a lot of people who come through here.

Bernice: Well in 37 years. Now people don't even know I am here, they don't look in the telephone directory. I'm in the directory, under Bridals by Bernice.'

Interviewer: Well now you will have some more business, you'll be on the Internet.

Bernice: Well good. I'm glad.

Interviewer: Ok, let me show you

Bernice: I mean at Notre Dame.

Interviewer: Yes, a lot of these were taken at the studio.

Interviewer: Well, Blankenburg had taken some.

Interviewer: It looks like it was taken at the school.

Bernice: Let's see, there's Marcella Reuter, she married Eagas.

Interviewer: She married whom?

Bernice: Norbert Eagas, he's gone. Marcella, she's living. This was Angela Senesac she's gone. She's passed away. Now did you recognize me?

Interviewer: I didn't have a chance.

Interviewer: Right in the corner?

Bernice: Right.

Interviewer: She wants to write down just who was who.

Bernice: Do you want to take it?

Interviewer: Yes, but we want to write down who is who.

Bernice: Oh, ok. Now this is Dorothy, Dorothy Mc Coy and she's Dorothy Marcotte, she is still living here in Bourbonnais, married to Albert Marcotte. still living. She lives in Wisconsin. This is Angela Senesac, and she has passed away, and this was a boarder - Burdell Tittinger.

Bernice: This was a boarding school. I lived there, but there were boarders from Chicago. This was Idella Dickman, She was from Indiana, she was a boarder also. I'm not sure if she's living, and this one here was Mary, I can't think of her last name, and this one here is Edith Fitzgerald, she was from Bradley, the girls from Bradley walked.

Interviewer: Now what is this one here?

Bernice: I don't know if you've ever seen a picture of the Sisters in their old habits.

Interviewer: Oh, my gosh.

Bernice: This is my very good friend, Sister St. Mary David.

Interviewer: Oh, gosh.

Interviewer: Oh, wow!

Bernice: Isn't that beautiful? She's passed away.

Interviewer: Now was she your teacher?

Bernice: Oh, yes, French teacher, in high school. Later I had three years of French. I took Latin, but I didn't like Latin.

Interviewer: Why?

Bernice: It was ok.

Interviewer: See I'm thinking about taking Latin.

Bernice: Oh, are you? It's ok, but I mean it wasn't my favorite subject, you know.

Interviewer: Well, I just wanted to learn Latin to read the classics.

Interviewer: I've never seen that.

Bernice: She was my favorite teacher. I can tell you the sisters in those days really worked hard. I can remember our classrooms. It was a waxed floor in front of the desk. Nobody walked across that floor.

Interviewer: No?

Bernice: No they were very, very strict.

Interviewer: Were you ever married?

Bernice: Yes, I married in 1971. See I didn't marry until later in life. My husband died in 1981. You see my name is Bernice Fortin Bissaillion. Those were the ten best years of my life.

Interviewer: You just had to wait for the right one.

Bernice: That's right. Absolutely.

Interviewer: And then when you guys were married, you lived in this house?

Bernice: Oh, yes. Right. We lived here. He lived in Bradley and then we moved over here. We rented a house for a while then.

Bernice: Oh, let me find a picture of my folks.

Interviewer: Oh, ok.

Interviewer: Would you mind if I made copies of these?

Bernice: No. That will be fine.

Interviewer: This is a beautiful?.

Interviewer: Now what was her name?

Bernice: Sister St. Mary David, but of course she was, now I'll show you a picture of when she took off her habit. When they went out without their habits. Well, I wouldn't talk to her for a year I was so disgusted.

Interviewer: Really?

Bernice: Yes, (laughs) we used to have alumni meetings in the fall, October. I'll show you a picture of her out of her habit.

Interviewer: Don't forget your folks.

Bernice: Yes, that's what I'm going to get it's upstairs. They shaved her head it is real short. I thought you might like this. My mother is in there and her two sisters. Look at those.

Bernice: Isn't that beautiful? I've got the buttons.

Interviewer: You have the buttons?

Bernice: Which one do you think is my mother?

Interviewer: Wait a minute let me see? These are her two sisters?

Bernice: Yes.

Interviewer: You look like her.

Bernice: I know a lot of people have told me that.

Interviewer: Look at this.

Interviewer: Where was this picture taken?

Bernice: A studio in Kankakee. There's my folks.

Bernice: That was cream colored. The dress. See those plumes?

Interviewer: She looks like she was very tiny.

Bernice: She was tall. In fact they always called her tall Lillie. She wasn't as tall as I am. She was taller than her sisters.

Interviewer: Now when were you born?

Interviewer: We're not supposed to ask that?

Bernice: No, you're not. I'm 39 and holding.

Interviewer: That's a good age to be.

Interviewer: What was your mother's name? Lillie?

Bernice: Lillie.

Interviewer: And what were her sister's names?

Bernice: This one here is Aunt Hattie. And this one is Cordelia who was married to Hebert. In fact, her house is next to the Swiss Chalet. That's where Genevieve, the oldest daughter is still living.

Interviewer: Oh, really?

Bernice: Oh, yeah. Genevieve Hebert, she's an artist. You might have seen some of her stuff.

Interviewer: That's the one with the lilac bushes in the front?

Bernice: Yes. They had two children, Margaret Peters, she is Merkel, in Clifton. She has Parkinson disease. She lived alone until just about three years ago.

Interviewer: So was your mother the oldest?

Bernice: No, my mother was the youngest.

Interviewer: Oh, she was the youngest?

Bernice: Yes, the youngest. I love those hats. They are gorgeous. But I do have the buttons, from that military coat.

Interviewer: Was your mother born here? Or did she come here?

Bernice: She was born in Exline, right outside here. And in fact, when my mother went to school, she lived on the farm you know, she went...they would board at LeClaire's in St. George, in fact my mother only went to school through the fourth grade because the older ones were done going to school. My mother was very good at figures and all that. But she only went up to fourth grade. You are finding all kinds of history, aren't you?

Interviewer: Do you have any other questions?

Interviewer: Where did you serve in the service?

Bernice: Well, I got my training in Palm Beach, Florida. You see the Spars started from the Waves out by Hunter College in New York. Some of the officers of the Waves started the SPARS, part of the Coast Guard. When I went in 1943, I was the fifth class, down in Palm Beach. I got my boots, six weeks of boot. Then we took tests to see what school we could go to and of course I ended up going to storekeeper's school. We graduated from storekeeper's school in November 1943 and I shipped out to Brooklyn City, New York.

I was in Brooklyn Supply Depot until six weeks before the end of the war and then they closed the Brooklyn Supply Depot and we transferred over to Warren City, New Jersey. The dirtiest city in the world. Oh, my was it dirty. It was real dirty. Of course they just disbanded the Spars at the end of World War II. So I came out May 22, 1946 and came home and decided to go to Chicago and get a job. My first job was, being a cashier for Walgreen's and I always loved cashiering. And then we had, you see material was hard to get you know. Because of the war. I had gotten a job with Monee Fabrics, down the street.

Interviewer: Why was material hard to get?

Bernice: Well, they were just making it you see. It had been used by the factories to make uniforms and things.

Interviewer: All of the other stuff was more important.

Bernice: Material had sold for $1 a yard, we have these big "come-on-sales" what we called come-on sales, I was cashiering. I remember one noon, in an hour's time we had sold a thousand dollars of material and I think my cash register was about two cents off.

Bernice: I always loved cashiering.

Interviewer: You don't mind if I take these and copy them?

Bernice: No, I'm going to give you something to put them in.

This interview with Bernice Bisillion was conducted on November 29, 2000 at her home in Bourbonnais.

The interviewers were:

Melody Odell
Erica Benoit