French Canadian Interview Project

The following interview with Sister Madeleine LaMarre was conducted on November 11, 2000 at her convent home in Kankakee, Illinois. The Western Civilization course interviewers were Susan and Renee Lemenager.

The video tape and audiotape that correlate with this transcript are available in the Kankakee Community College Learning Resource Center. The videotape #V-RH 17 is on reserve. The audiotape "HIST INT #2 can be checked out of the LRC for one week.

Interviewer: Thank you so much for coming and for letting us come and interview you today about your French heritage. We're from the Western Civilization Class with Dr. Paul. Today is November 11, 2000 and we just want to hear your story of your French ancestry. We would like you to reminisce about your past and we'll ask you a few questions, just answer the best you can and if you have anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do that.

Sister Madeleine: Thank you.

Interviewer: Ok, we would like to ask, when did your French ancestors first settle here?

Sister Madeleine: Well looking at that article, I think Noel LeVasseur and the people came in the early 1800's. I can't remember off hand when my grandparents came. But my mother and father were born around here. My mother was born in, I think you call it Indian Oaks now, and my father was born in Rockville Township. But my Grandparents were born in Canada. And then I'm not sure how far back, that they came from France. I am very proud to be French and happy to be French, but as you know the French influenced has diminished. My older sister and brother would be more able to tell you about the French customs and that. Because I see them kind of diminishing and changing.

I'm looking in the phone book this morning there are a lot of French names in the phone book and there are a lot of French streets.Well, when I was growing up they tell me that I spoke French before I went to school. I don't really remember that too well. Of course once you start school and then you start speaking English. But there were still French services at our church when I was very young. The priest would say mass in French and would give the homily in French.

This would happen in Bishop McNamara where I work. It was French international week, our cook who was very good, she would make a lot of French things, she made crepes one day -she didn't use the word crepe even though that's a French word when you go to a restaurant you order crepes and so that's a French word. Then she would have French-onion soup, and some kind of a beef stew, probably had a little wine or something French like wine, well what else did she have, another French things that maybe you've never heard of, it's called blood sausage. Oh, it is horrible-the thought of it is horrible- but the French people liked it.

My mother use to make a meat pie that was very good. And there were a number of pastries that were French they still have that in French restaurants. I know I have been to classic restaurants in Chicago and around the Art Institute, they have a lot of French Restaurants and so there are a lot of French soups and pastries and those dishes.

But I think the greatest influence that the French had on my life was the faith that they gave me. The French, of course none of them other than like the Polish, German, Irish, Italian, all of them are religious. My mother and father are very religious and I am very happy that they put God in my life and made Him very, very important. When I went to Canada, a few years ago, I remember the man saying a lot of town's are named after saints, like Saint John and Saint Paul, because the church was the center of their life, so they named the town after the church because it was so important to them. And I think that's one of the things I am very, very grateful for is the faith my parents gave me. Like I said we said the Rosary every evening together and we went to mass in the morning together and there were a lot of things.

I am the youngest in the family of six and my sister who was the oldest was also religious. I am sure that influenced me to become religious. And my brother was Viatorian, he was also religious, he taught at McNamara, for about fifty years, so I'm sure that influenced me and my parents never said anything one way or the other, I guess they were supposed to impress us while growing up.

I find that our young people are very service conscious now. I have seen that at McNamara for a long time. I find that service is very important to them you know to be going out whether it is to nursing homes or they really want to help the poor. I am sure they like that and they are doing that now. It was nice the other day we had a reception for the French class, and the French class from Bradley Bourbonnais High School came, I thought that was very nice.

The two mayors came from Bourbonnais and Kankakee came, our French teacher spoke in French. But I think for many people Spanish is more important to them; I know our students are taking Spanish because I guess that is the culture and society in which we live. I always tell them French is an international language, French is the language of the Olympics, it's the banking language, and the language of the UN, when you go there that is the main language. It is a beautiful language. I do speak French, but I could say something for you.

Interviewer: Yes, why don't you say something, a prayer or something?

Sister Madeleine: I don't have much occasion to speak French so that's why you forget. I go back to Montreal occasionally that's where our motherhouse is. It comes back to you, because we are surrounded by it, but here no one speaks French. So I can certainly say the "Hail Mary" for you.

Je vous salve, Marie, pleine de grace, le Seigneur est avec vous, vous etes benie entre toutes les femmes, et Jesus le fruit de nos entrailles est bene. Sainte Marie, meie de Duie, priez pour nous pecheus maintanant et a l'heure de notre mort. Ainsi soit il. Amen. That's the Hail Mary, so.

I guess when I was young, we said the Rosary in French when I was growing up. My father spoke French, my mother spoke what we called Patois which a kind of a slang it was not a very correct French. But my father spoke a very correct French he wasn't an educated man, he was self-educated, but he lived French. He got a paper called La De Ban he got it from Quebec, he read that and he always spoke a very beautiful French. He would speak with the sister from the convent.

Our sisters, you have seen this in the paper, our sisters came over in the 1860 and there were articles in the paper about it. You know we thought that's kind of an odd number to celebrate 140, but the pastor said-and he's right- ten more years is a long time so let's celebrate now, so it was very nice. The Viatorians, I don't know if you're familiar with those priests or not, here at our parish it's St. Pat's and Maternity, in Bourbonnais, and in St. Anne, and St. George. Father Yarno was one of them. They came over. We came over in 1860, and they came in 1865 so we both came very close together. My brother was a Viatorian; they have always been very closely connected with our sisters.

Interviewer: We were wondering where in Bourbonnais you grew up?

Sister Madeleine: Well this is still called Main Street; let me see what is there then. Our house was torn down, but right to the south of it a couple doors down is the Hardee's, is Hardee's still there? There used to be a wedding center, I don't know if that's still there or not a couple doors away from us. Across the street there was a little store there used to be a blacksmith. It was a little French town of course, in the early days, and now it is an amalgamation of many, many...

Interviewer: On main street, Broadway or was it Kennedy. Do you know?

Sister Madeleine: It's Kennedy, and then Broadway's in Bradley, Main Street is in Bourbonnais. I used to walk to school; do you remember Maternity at all? Well, there's a school you know that they have a kind of in the back they have a kindergarten I believe, a separate building. On that land there it used to be the convent, I went to grade school and high school there.

And then I went to Canada for a year. Because I was too young, they wanted you to be 18 when you went but I was 17 -so I went to college in Montreal. It was a nice experience, there was both French and English but I went back to Montreal. I studied at the novitiate, the novitiate was a place where you prepared to be a sister. So I spent three years there and of course there was a lot of French, you ate it, slept it and dreamed it, it was all French. Some sisters had the ability to pick up the French language and others found it difficult, some were from Nova Scotia and they found it hard to speak French.

Interviewer: You went to college in Montreal?

Sister Madeleine: I did, for a year.

Interviewer: Ok so before you...

Sister Madeleine: And then I went two more years training to be a sister.

Interviewer: Were very many people going to college when you were?

Sister Madeleine: Oh yes, It was French and English it was a bi-lingual college. And then at the Bishop you had huge, huge mega house, we called it, which has now been sold to the city and it's a college and its like thousands of students in it, but when I went, there were many young girls training to be sisters, we were at least 75. Now we are lucky we have one girl. Any of you interested?

Interviewer: Was it a hard choice for you to make? Becoming a nun?

Sister Madeleine: Well, it's difficult because you leave home and you say how'd I do this? How'd I get the grace to do this? The Holy Spirit helps us you know. It is a difficult choice, but you know you just feel it. I thought of my sister; well if she could do it then I guess I can do it too, and my teachers who were sisters. There were many sisters teaching at St. Joseph's Seminary in Kankakee.

Now our foundress was St. Marguerite Bourgeoys and I don't know if you can get that little statue from the table, Our foundress was born in France, in 1620, and in 1653 she decided to come over, she knew that they were founding Canada as a colony. It was a hard time, they were very poor area and there a lot of Indians, there were a lot of hardships. She said maybe I can come over and teach children, but there weren't any children to teach because there were just the adults who had come over colonists. As babies were born, a lot of them died, I suppose because they didn't; have the proper nourishment or they were cold or so then finally she started a school.

Interviewer: What types of French cultural traditions do you remember from when you were a child? Some memories?

Sister Madeleine: Well I think like I said the religion of faith was very very important, like saying our daily rosary and attending church all the time. It was a custom. New Years was a very important day for the French, it was more important than Christmas. On New Years Day, many families, especially when I was young, the children would ask their father for a blessing and that was a beautiful custom. When I was young my relatives and friends would be able to come over and they would go to different houses and we would have donuts and maybe wine. The French are known for their wine. That was a custom.

Interviewer: What were your daily meals like?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I think quite ordinary, but like some of the things I mentioned before like we had that meat pie at times and chicken and dumplings, I think that's kind of French, chicken and dumplings. And the crepes. I remember my father, after every meal he always thanked my mother, for making a good meal that always impressed me. I think that's very important, I think a lot of people take the mother for granted, you know, she does all this, so. The onion soup was part of our meals too. I used to embroider, I guess, I don't know if that's a French things or not. I know Dr. Paul had mentioned things like that and I used to play the piano, but those days are gone.

Interviewer: What would you do for fun, at home?

Sister Madeleine: At home? Well, my mother played the piano and we would gather around and sing. My parents played cards a lot, which they loved, but we played like games, you know. We didn't go to the movies a lot, but there probably weren't that many good ones like there are now.

Interviewer: Any special memories as a child growing up?

Sister Madeleine: I remember feeling very protected and safe and I could walk to school, to convent, where the kindergarten is now. A big and yellow four-story brick convent the sisters lived there, and they also taught there so I had a very many happy days there in grade school and high school. I had very good friends. Four of my classmates came for the celebration we had at the 140th anniversary and we had a good time reminiscing.

Interviewer: So, were all the schools, when you were growing up, taught by sisters?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I don't know if there were any public schools in Bourbonnais at that time. Now you can either say Bourbonnais or Bourbonnais-like we said for 100 years- but the real pronunciation is Bour- bon- yae. I don't know if there were any public schools. Of course, ours was a public school and so religion had to be taught before or after school. At one point it became a parochial school or a parish school but before that it was really a public school, but not in the sense we know it today, but now since the last few year there are a number of public schools in Bourbonnais so the town has grown a lot.

Interviewer: Growing up, what did your father do for his vocation?

Sister Madeleine: My father was an accountant. Now it said on a little biography that he was a reporter. I think that was just an occasional thing, but he did write for the, I don't know what they called it back then, it's our Daily Journal. It had many names, it was the Republican News, and it had different names at different times. I have a couple of articles there, the Chicago Tribune came to interview him and so he gave the history. My father loved history and he kept clippings a lot. I gave a big book to the historical society of clippings and letters he had, you know, they are very interesting, you know, politically or about things in the area he kept everything.

Interviewer: You mentioned it's very valuable, right?

Sister Madeleine: I think so. They were very happy to get it and wrote each of us a thank you note. I still have a few clippings. He did a lot in French and he had a lot of clippings from French papers, but also from this area. He was very good and loved History, loved French culture. He was very very French and he spoke a beautiful French. He always said to me "you will be sorry" cause he was speaking to me in French and I was answering in English. I could understand it perfectly and he said "you will be sorry" and I was many times that I hadn't tried.

But when I went to Montreal, I was there 3 years; you do get kind of immersed in it. The girls that I studied with, some of them had had 12 years of French, they had it automatically through grade school and high school and they couldn't speak French cause they were from English homes. Now you can study it all you want, but if you don't get the opportunity to speak it, it's very difficult.

Interviewer: Did the families in Bourbonnais speak French also?

Sister Madeleine: Oh yes, and then it gradually got less and less. I know a few years ago we were saying the Legrise family spoke a beautiful French all the time and the mother had come from Canada, but see they're gone and there's only one of those girls left and she lives in California and I hope she still speaks French if she has the opportunity. Many, many families spoke French. We had a lot of services in church in French and it was funny because there were Irish moving in and different non-French and they would come to church and we had devotions in French sometimes and they would tell us what they understood and it was really funny because they didn't know what we were saying and they'd say 'is this what your were saying?' and we'd say," no, not quite". So, they kind of made up things that they heard. That gradually diminished. And I think that's true of all cultures. The Polish children don't know Polish and the German children don't know German.

Interviewer: Did your family ever have the opportunity to travel, like we do today?

Sister Madeleine: No, we didn't take a vacation as such; we went to a place with my mother's family. There were ten in her family, seven girls and three boys that grew up to be adults and we'd maybe go visit their homes. Like one lived on a farm- I remember, in Momence and we would spend like a week with them and go other places but we didn't really travel very far.

Interviewer: How would you get there?

Sister Madeleine: Well, my brother, when he got old enough he got a car but my parents never owned a car. But my brother did.

Interviewer: Did you have horses?

Sister Madeleine: No, I never knew horses.

Interviewer: So, you would just walk everywhere? Like to school?

Sister Madeleine: Well, we had a streetcar and busses and all that just like there is now and my brother had a car when we were young.

Interviewer: So you never visited Chicago?

Sister Madeleine: Yes, when my sister- see, there were five sisters older than me and when my sister got married she lived in Chicago - so when I was younger I used to go and visit and spend time with here in Chicago.

Interviewer: So she was a nun?

Sister Madeleine: No, no she was my married sister.

Interviewer: Do you remember any special events that happened in Bourbonnais when you were growing up?

Sister Madeleine: Well, one that stands out the most was the feast of Corpus Christi, which means, the body of Christ. We had processions and that was very beautiful. The whole town at that time seemed to be Catholic and they would have altars set up on people porches and in their homes and one at the convent. One at the schools and one at the college. It was St Viator's College before it became Olivet. All the time I was growing up it was St Viator's College. They had these beautiful altars decorated and the priest would go from altar to altar and he would walk thru the whole town and it was very beautiful.

Interviewer: Are there any buildings that are here today that were around when you were young?

Sister Madeleine: Oh, I can probably name them, like, St Viator's College and Olivet has added to that on the Olivet campus there. Our convent was torn down and there's a new school there, the Maternity grade school and then there's also the kindergarten. I guess they have some mobile homes too, like mobile classrooms. I think they're trailers or something and they have a couple of those.

Interviewer: So, you went to Maternity when you were young?

Sister Madeleine: Yes, it was called Notre Dame. It was Notre Dame Convent Grade School and High School.

Interviewer: Are the buildings the same?

Sister Madeleine: No, the convent is gone now. It was a big yellow four-story building so that is gone. And I don't know if many other buildings have been torn down.

Interviewer: How did the people of Bourbonnais look at the people of Kankakee? Like did you look at them differently?

Sister Madeleine: No, because I had relatives and friends who lived in Kankakee and I didn't think much of it. There probably wasn't as much travel as there is today. But there were a lot of my aunts and uncles that lived in the area. But I didn't know the older Aunts and Uncles that moved away or died but I don't think we looked upon them differently.

Interviewer: Did you go into Kankakee very often?

Sister Madeleine: Well, yes to do the shopping and things like that. I guess we probably went on streetcars or busses or what ever they had going through there.

Interviewer: Did the war affect your life in Bourbonnais at all?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I don't think there was that much of a change. There was some rationing though and of course a lot of the boys went to the service and my two brothers went, my third one was a teacher so I guess he was deferred, but my other two brothers were both in the service. I went to Montreal around that time too. So, that was hard on my brother. Hard on the parents I'm sure to let there children go but fortunately they came back safe and sound.

I think there is a plaque outside the church in Bourbonnais of the people of the area that lost their children in the service. It's such a senseless thing--war. Why did we fight, I mean why do we kill each other? Very hard to understand as is this election [Bush v. Gore 2000] is hard to understand very unusual things happen.

Interviewer: So you went to Montreal and you were there for three years at school and then where did you go from there?

Sister Madeleine: I taught in Chicago, and then a few years in Connecticut and New York and then I taught at St Joseph's Seminary, which is also torn down now. That is where the priest lived at St. Rose, across from St Mary's hospital. We closed St. Joseph's Seminary in 1964. The sisters had been there 100 years but we closed in 1964 and we sold the building. We did live there for quite some time after that. Then we moved into the nurse's residents at St Mary's Hospital. Then I went to McNamara in '64 and have been there ever since almost.

Interviewer: And what subject do you teach in?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I taught religion and math and science, and then I worked in the library at Mac and now I work in the development and fund raising, and work with the Alumni like the 7,000 who have graduated from the past. We keep in touch with them and their relatives. I enjoy doing that and I know the children and there families and their grandfathers and so on, because I've been there so long.

Interviewer: Now what do you think of the progress and expansion in Bourbonnais now that you don't live there any more and you've moved to Kankakee?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I think it's wonderful. I just hope that it's being done in an orderly fashion. I remember so many things that they were building too quickly. You know there wasn't enough preparation with the water and sewage and all that but I think it's wonderful that it's still expanding. Bradley has tried to expand but it's kind of sandwiched between Kankakee and Bourbonnais. A lot of public schools now, I think our school is going to do something either build on to Maternity or, enlarge it in some way. I think they're going to remove those mobile units and possibly build something new..

Interviewer: Does any of your family live here still?

Sister Madeleine: Yes, I have my oldest sister who was a religious died, and my brother who was a religious died and my other sister died. So there are 3 of us left, 2 brothers and myself and they are both in this area. One goes to St. Teresa's and one goes to Maternity.

Interviewer: And do they live in Bourbonnais or Kankakee?

Sister Madeleine: One in Bourbonnais and one in Kankakee

Interviewer: We were talking about when you went to college. Were there many girls going off to college other than to become nuns?

Sister Madeleine: Oh yes, some went to be teachers and some went on to be nurses or worked in offices. A lot of them studied.

Interviewer: And how would you pay for that?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I had a scholarship fortunately and my brothers helped me with whatever they could.

Interviewer: Did young girls ever get a job so they could pay for their school?

Sister Madeleine: I would think so, because a lot of them worked in offices and I'm not sure, but it didn't cost very much to go to school. And the parents helped and the families.

Interviewer: So you didn't have any jobs?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I worked in an office building a while- I don't remember where in Kankakee here. I did some secretarial work but other than babysitting and things like that, I didn't make much money. I left right after high school to go to college.

Interviewer: Have you ever visited the town or the country of our ancestors?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I went to Canada and I did see where my grandparents on my mother's side and on my father's side lived. They were pointed out to me, and it was very interesting. I went with the group who was doing genealogy but they didn't speak French, but they had French names. So that was a drawback, but fortunately I could speak French, so it opened a lot of doors of us like when we went to the rectory or we went to cemetery a lot of places and if you spoke French it helped a lot so I was glad that I could help.

It takes a lot of time to do genealogy and I just never felt I had the time to pursue that. I do have some things I just throw them in a box. Some have real think books on computer files, and I guess It's difficult if their Aunt or Uncle remarried then they had another family. Somehow they kept track of all that, I don't know how. It's very time consuming and they would travel a lot of places like I guess the Mormons in Utah have an excellent library of genealogy. Again though you have to dig into everything and it's time consuming. But it's very fascinating.

Interviewer: So you mentioned your ancestors were from Canada. Why did they choose this area to come to?

Sister Madeleine: When you read about the history of this area, there were fur traders. A lot of them came because there were a lot of Indians here at the time and I don't know if they came to make a living or I don't think there was any persecution. Well, they came from Europe because they were too much about that but I think they just wanted to start a settlement in another place.

Did you ever hear of Father Chiniquy? He was very famous and from Canada. He came with the priest with a number of people. They were trying to start a French settlement, which they did in this area. He differed with the church on a lot of things so there was a lot of controversy about him, but he did bring a lot of people from Canada.

Interviewer: How did you get here from Canada?

Sister Madeleine: My grandparents and parents were born here.

Interviewer: Do you know what kind of transportation they used?

Sister Madeleine: I don't know. Horse and carriage? I don't know. I guess there were trains, I don't know. You hear about the trains that were going out west and all that? I know our sisters came in 1860 on the train. They mentioned that. How very difficult it was in that book I gave your for Dr. Paul, it was when we were here 100 years in 1960.

It was the history of how three of our sisters came from Canada, there's a picture of the 3 of them. They found it very difficult. The parish was not ready to receive them. Only the next morning when they woke up did they realize they were living in a very dirty little house. They were very upset. It was very difficult. There were a lot of French people but there were also English speaking. The sisters didn't speak English so they had to learn and I'm sure it was very difficult. That's how all-good things get started, there's a lot of suffering and perseverance.

Interviewer: So what did the sister's start?

Sister Madeleine: They started a school for just a few students at first and gradually it grew and grew and at some point they built. I guess they taught in a home, then they built and had the convent built somehow. The people must have rallied around and helped them build that big convent. Well, there was another one before that; that wasn't the first one. And then the Viatorians came so; they were right next-door at St. Viator's College that is now Olivet. They gathered the children around them and finally had good-sized classes.

Interviewer: Did your grandparents have any part in that?

Sister Madeleine: Well, I think they were connected to the school and convent.

Interviewer: Did your grandparents have anything to do with St. Joseph's Seminary?

Sister Madeleine: See, in 1865 our sisters came there and they built up a good size school. We had boarding school as well in both Bourbonnais and Kankakee. A lot of girls came from Chicago. It could have been for different reasons, like their parents were working so we had a lot of boarding with us. Sometimes there were broken homes, another reason they came, but we had quite large boarding schools in both places. It was nice, I taught at St. Joseph's Seminary and you felt you were like a family. There weren't large, large, classes so you got to know everybody and the girls were very lovely. We had all girls. Grade school we had boys and girls. High school we had just girls. The boys went to St. Patrick's Catholic boys or public schools in Kankakee.

Interviewer: So was St. Joseph's seminary a college or a high school?

Sister Madeleine: A high school, the grade school was called St. Rose cause the parish was St. Rose, but I don't know why we called it St. Joseph's Seminary. And seminary sounds like it's for men. My sister was the principal there and got a lot of letters talking about the men that were there and would they like to buy something because they were selling things. I think years ago Seminary was a term they used sort of like an academy now is for girls. Where the West Point Academy was for men and St. Joseph's seminary was a term in French for girls, a special private girl school. It's interesting to study the history of things. Father, the pastor of St. Rose, has his home there now.

Interviewer: Did any of those girls go on to become nuns?

Sister Madeleine: Oh, I don't think so, laugh, a few. There aren't a lot of sisters now. When I entered there were about 75 girls entering and now there are 2. So the numbers have decreased a lot. Marguerite Bourgeoys was declared a saint - their foundress - in 1982. We're very happy... she came here in 1653 and she's called the co-founder of Montreal because when she came over, there were just a few colonies and she had a very difficult life, I'm sure. What she taught in was like a stable and the original looked like towers and they are still in Montreal and she erected a cross on the mountain. Now they have a huge electric one that's very beautiful. She had erected one there many, many years ago.

One thing about her was she went to whereever the needs were. They went back to France and more girls came. We always laugh because it was like a marriage bureau, because she introduced these girls from France to meet these colonists who were there in Montreal and a lot of them got married. She in turn taught them to be good wives and good mothers, and to quilt and to sew until there were children. Then she started school. She just went wherever the needs were and that's what we try to do more and more.

There used to be 13 of us at McNamara--I am the only one now. Our sisters do all types of things; work with abused women and children, prison ministries etc. You might consider it more social work, but we feel in a way it is education. Sister Marguerite Bourgeoys never came to Bourbonnais only to Montreal and was born in 1653 and she died in 1700- but by that time she had started the sisters in our congregation. And I guess a priest in Bourbonnais sent for some of the sisters, so 3 of them came in 1860. the priest sent for teachers and the 5 years later the teachers branched off to Kankakee.

I've been looking in the phone book and there were a lot of French names in this area still. Streets also have French names. So we have a very rich heritage.