French Canadian Interview Project

The following interview was conducted with Suzanne (Smith) Pruchnicki and Elmira (Smith) Wilkey in April 2002 at Suzanne's home which is also the home of The Bronte History of Printing Museum. The Western Civilization course student interviewers were Elizabeth Neveau, Jamiee Wessels, and Lonny Harper.

The audiotape that correlates with this transcript is available in the Kankakee Community College Learning Resource Center. The audiotape "HIST INT #10 Suzanne Pruchnicki and Elmira Wilkey" can be checked out of the LRC for one week.

Interviewer Buffy: Please have you introduce yourselves first to start out with, that way everybody is. . .

Suzanne: Yes, I'm Suzanne (Smith) Pruchniki.

Elmira: Elmira (Smith) Wilkey.

Interviewer Buffy: And then you and all of us can . . .

Suzanne: Did they all sign the guest book?

Interviewer Buffy: Hopefully, and if not, we can surely sign it on the way out. I think we need to start way back before you and I spoke and ask when and where you were born, Suzanne.

Suzanne: I was born in Chicago. My father was working for International Harvester, at that time.

Interviewer Buffy: Would you like to share what year you were born with us?

Suzanne: Ah yes, 1929, June 24th, which is a very important day in French Canada. No one ever told me this, and I had to make many trips to Quebec to learn it. The feast of St. John the Baptist, Sainte Jean Baptiste, which is…he is the patron saint of Quebec. And so it was a wonderful day, I would think for my grandfather.

Interviewer Buffy: I would think so. Where does your French-Canadian ancestry originate from?

Suzanne: In what way do you mean?

Interviewer Buffy: Was it your father, your mother…

Suzanne: Oh, it was my father – yes, it's my father…yes.

Interviewer Buffy: OK.

Interviewer Jamiee: Do you know where your family originally came from--a specific town in France?

Suzanne: Exact you mean? Yes, we do know some of the towns, we have, Paul, my husband, and I have visited them, yes in '84 and we have great affinity for that part of France, I really love that part and I think this is true, that when you go back to where your ancestors were, even if you don't know, that at the time, you will feel something if you're attuned at all. L'Acadie in Quebec is where they came from before they came here in 1863 to Manteno and I was visiting L'Acadie with a very distant cousin and I didn't know my great grandmother was born there, but I absolutely loved it, it's so wonderful a town with a magnificent church and I have some things and books about it.

Interviewer Buffy: Do you know what towns in France that your family originated from?

Suzanne: Yes.

Interviewer Buffy:What areas in France.

Suzanne: Well, along the Loire River, but from Loudon from close to Chinon. These are what's called the Valle de Loire, the Garden of France and then some came from farther down Toulouse. The Dugais came from Toulouse and [Sarpais Marceau] came from St. Onge which is down farther southwest of France. They came from different places, because we are descended from twelve of the founding families of Nova Scotia, the French family from about 1640 and ah…these are family names you will see in the Cajun country.

Suzanne: We share that Acadian heritage.

Interviewer Buffy: We want to know where you went to high school and elementary school.

Suzanne: Oh, we went both of us to Our Lady Academy, which had its motherhouse in Paris, it's no longer there and Servants to the Holy Heart of Mary which was at the hospital (Provena Hospital) for twelve years. Thirty in my graduating class and six in my, I mean thirty in the whole high school, thirty girls, six in my graduating class how many did you have Elmira?

Elmira: Five, talk about "crème de la crème."

Interviewer Buffy: What year did you graduate, Elmira?

Elmira: I graduated in 1954 from high school.

Suzanne: '47, I graduated.

Interviewer Buffy: And you were born in Chicago and moved to Manteno at what time?

Suzanne: Well, the thing is my father was working for International Harvester, and he was then transferred, right after I was born, to um Bismarck--is it North Dakota? North Dakota I guess, or South Dakota, North Dakota. And then he returned, and his father died in 1931, and my father then took over the business, which he was quite familiar with when he took over the business in Manteno. And the business had begun in 1863, so this was '31, and I was only a year and a half old, and I had just that one picture. It was on my first birthday with my grandfather.

Interviewer Buffy: So you moved to Manteno in the year . . .?

Suzanne: Oh well about '33 because there was no place to rent, I think about '33 maybe '32 we moved. We lived in Peotone for a time then.

Interviewer Lonny: When you moved to Manteno, um the church that had ties with the society very deep at the time that you moved?

Suzanne: The church was what?

Man: The church tied with the society?

Suzanne: Oh yeah.

Interviewer Lonny: What church did you attend?

Suzanne: St. Joseph's Church which was very, very beautiful inside and was very like the French-Canadian churches. It has none of that today and it has all been taken out. The only thing that remains is the exterior, which is very like the French-Canadian churches.

Interviewer Buffy: St. Joseph's Church … where?

Suzanne: In Manteno. Yeah.

Interviewer Buffy: Where is that located at? Which street?

Suzanne: Well it's right there uh, Main Street as you go, ah, south on Main Street and you'll see what's left of the academies, there were two buildings. The park is there but the two buildings of the academy are gone. They were taken down in 1967.

Elmira: The grotto is still there.

Suzanne: Yeah, and it opened in 1907 so it was only about 60 years that the academy was there.

Interviewer Buffy: And what other churches were in the area?

Suzanne: Oh, a Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church in Manteno.

Interviewer Buffy: Would you say the majority of the people in Manteno were Catholic at that time?

Suzanne: I think, although I think it was largely French, you couldn't say that of course now. It's been many years but largely French; and French was spoken and I always figured this because when I was about 9 years old, I had to wait while six elderly French-speaking women went ahead of me going to confession. This was Christmas Eve and I wanted to get home and they each went right ahead of me. The priest had to speak French at that time. That would've been in the '30's. Ah, but they didn't need French-speaking priests later because that part of the population had died and Bourbonnais had mass in French in the '40's yet.

Interviewer Buffy: How important would you say that religion was to your family?

Suzanne: Why I think it was very important to the ancestors . . . were very devout. I don't know how my great grandmother Elmire could have gotten to mass everyday with twelve children as they were growing up. They were very, very devout, and ah. . .

Interviewer Buffy: Did many people in Manteno speak French at the time?

Suzanne: No, it would have been the elderly women and men, that's it, in the 1930s.

Interviewer Buffy: Did the children learn how to speak French?

Suzanne: What?

Interviewer Buffy: Did the children learn how to speak French?

Suzanne: Well, no, my father had heard French. You know my grandfather spoke French. They spoke English. They spoke English when they came, which was to their advantage, the Smiths did. When they came from Quebec because it was under English rule, and it's a commonwealth country now. Yeah it's still . . . the other provinces are very English. It's only Quebec and it's too bad I think the people of Quebec now want it to be entirely French.

When I visited in 1946 after the war my father said that, "We should go to Quebec and Montreal and see the relatives." And I fell in love with Montreal. It was such a wonderful city, and I loved it immediately and didn't get back for many many years. But at the that time it was also very English. You had to speak English. Everyone had to speak English. And French was just for those who were French. But today now the English had moved out largely the English speaking, because they became very insular to the French. Uh . . . they want to be you know just and they tried to break away. They wanted to break away from the rest of Canada. Which I don't think is a good idea.

(Lonny) In Quebec, are the signs both English and French today?

Suzanne: They're in French yes. You originally found them in English too. But they're in French.

Interviewer Buffy: Do you speak French?

Suzanne: Yes.

Interviewer Buffy: Very well?

Suzanne: Well I think I speak fairly well. I can make myself understood. Our relatives do not speak English at all now unless we visit them.

Interviewer Buffy: We'd like to know how you think your French-Canadian heritage affects our area today? Do you see anything of that now?

Suzanne: Not very much I'm afraid, the Churches have, except for St. Anne, and L'Erable, Martinton, Maternity, and St. Rose, they still are quite a bit like they were originally I guess, but, for the most part the French culture is very diluted and you don't even find a lot of French names anymore. Intermarriage has taken place.

Interviewer Buffy: Can you describe the similarities between the churches here and the churches in France? I believe you were talking about the churches in Canada when we were speaking?

Suzanne: Well they have kept their . . . the churches in Quebec are absolutely magnificent. Ah, the church in L'Acadie and also Naperville where my great grandparents, they were married, are so magnificent in size for small towns. They still are gold gilded, gilded glossy carvings, usually gilded in white. The altars are white with a lot of gold and walls maybe and the ceilings they have gold broidery or paintings. This is true at L'Acadie where the refugees from Acadia, Nova Scotia, my ancestors among them, built the church there on Thanksgiving for being able to get back to a French-speaking country.

Interviewer Buffy: Your ancestors built the church?

Suzanne: Well they helped too, yes, everyone did and, ah, great-grandfather, Helaire's father, Joseph, was, ah, what they called an anreciae, that is, he worked on wood and carved and made furniture and things like that. There is a great deal of wood carving in these glossary carvings, scrolls of leaves, and things like that, which are attached to the walls and then gilded with real gold leaf. And so, these are just so, so beautiful these churches. Ah, and many of them are in the style of Louis XVI of France, the last King of France, his, that styles are carried over into Canada.

Interviewer Buffy: Do you have any favorite childhood memories that you'd like to share with us?

Suzanne: Hmm, what kind of memories?

Interviewer Buffy: Maybe something related to your French-Canadian heritage? If not, just your very favorite, a Christmas memory perhaps?

Suzanne: Well, the French didn't celebrate Christmas, and my father never had a Christmas tree for instance, and, he..he didn't think much of Christmas trees at all. They celebrated New Year's and.. .and, I have something here that's besides the point I suppose but I took out these accounts: one is by Leah Jill [Mongeau] Robinson, her mother was Agnes Smith and she grew up in Minnesota. . . Marshall, Minnesota, and she talked about the things that they did. And the other is Dorothy Dalke, who is a descendent of Grace Smith over there. She was the youngest. Dorothy lived in, ah, Apache Junction, Arizona. She's 90 years old and she gave us a great deal of information about the ancestors.

For instance, at Christmas, they, before Christmas, they made bushel baskets of doughnuts. Doughnuts and wine were served on New Years Day. New Years Day was the big day. Ah, mass was important, you know. Midnight mass was very important to the French. And then afterward they would have a dinner, which they still do in France. But, Helaire would in the days before 30 pound turkeys became available, he always bought two turkeys in November and neutered them, penned them, arranged there perches—a turkey won't sleep unless it can fix it's claws on a perch (Dorothy put that in)—and fatten them, for holiday dinners. Neutered they'd fatten. They were fattened and were known as capons.

In the late fall, the Smith boys would fry hundreds of doughnuts, pack them in bushel baskets and freeze them for the holidays. But there were no refrigerators; of course, I assume they were out on porches or something to be kept cold. But, she also said that—and I have not ever heard this from my father because he didn't know his Grand..his Grandfa. . .his Grandmother—8, 6 to 8 course dinners with 17 at the table, it was such a large family. This would have been, I suppose in the 1880's. That they would have had something elaborate, because Elmire Courville, my great grandmother, had 12 children and she died in 1902 and her husband died in 1922. Much easier to be the husband than to be the mother of 12, I think. But, I don't have memories that would be connected to the French, particularly because they didn't celebrate Christmas. It would be the German part of my heritage that celebrated our, that celebrated Christmas.

Interviewer Jamiee: What were some of the holidays then that were connected more to your French history?

Suzanne: Well, I don't suppose that there were any, any holidays.

Elmira: We made our contribution. One of our sons was born on Bastille Day.

Suzanne: That's right—on July 14th, ah yes.

Interviewer Buffy: Were there any special traditions then surrounding New Years Day?

Suzanne: You see, I think what it is, the reason we would not have those traditions is because men don't pass traditions down. There were four girls and three of them died fairly young. Ah, Emma Smith, my father's ah, aunt, my father's sister—Emma married Anatole Renaud, his picture is over there, Anatole when he was an elderly man, he's so handsome yet. And moved to Montreal. Anatole had come down and worked at Marshall Fields in Chicago and must have come down to Manteno. He must have known somebody, and married Emma and they had three lovely children. But she was in Montreal, Grace was in Minnesota, Agnes died after having 9 children. She died in Marshall, Minnesota, and that left Mary Antoinette who died in 1916. She had one son and she died in childbirth in 1916. So, there were no women to pass anything on, and therefore we had no, no French traditions that were, because none of those uncles would have passed anything on.

Interviewer Buffy: I see.

Suzanne: They loved visiting. I think they'd say that, and they liked playing cards, but visiting is a big thing with the French, you know.

Interviewer Buffy: I think you mentioned Sunday night dinners.

Suzanne: Oh in Paris, in France, yes, Sunday night is the night that all the children come home and have a little supper with the parents that they haven't seen during the week. The French in France are very close with their families and you see lots and lots of kissing on both cheeks, ah. And I was, we were just there, Elmira was just there in September, ah, in France, and I was just there in November this month. But just last month, but I never saw a crying child or heard a crying child there. In the museum with their parents, they are at Notre Dame Cathedral, and they're so close, it's such a close family life, and uh, they just, they are not, ah…

Elmira: You see the same in Canada. In the small communities even . . .

Suzanne: They behave very well . . .

Elmira: They are out in . . .

Suzanne: without anybody scolding them or telling them what to do, they just, see there's a great deal of love and affection. And that I think is so true about the French. That [love] that they had.

Interviewer Buffy: Much more so than in the American culture?

Suzanne: Well I think its more demonstrative, this kissing of people constantly and our relatives, ah, always say when we leave and they kiss us and we kiss them that we have to say goodbye before we meet again—to make it a little easier to say goodbye.

Interviewer Buffy: We'd like to know what your family's occupations were. You said briefly what your father did. Was your mother a stay at home mother?

Suzanne: Ah… mother had been a teacher. Mother was very well educated. She'd been a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, ah, in Peotone. We've even found the place and two women, one who was a first grader with mother, but only for a few years because she'd married and ah… she was at home, yes. And my father inherited the business that had been going for, since 1863, so he never had to worry about finding a job. And mother was hired by one of the farmers who was a supervisor for that little one room schoolhouse there. Ah, my uncle had to take her out to the field, that's where he was working so this is the day and age before resumes, and gets hired very easily back then. And ah . . .

Interviewer Buffy: And what was your occupation?

Suzanne: I… I was a teacher. First of all I taught for seven years in Norfolk, Virginia, Panama Canal Zone, in Washington D.C. and Maryland I taught 5th grade because I just couldn't find a job as a high school teacher, but then when I came back to this area in 1961, I taught at the old Kankakee High School, and I taught for twenty years at McNamara, mostly art. Elmira has taught English.

Elmira: I'll tell you. I don't know how your format works so . . .

Interviewer Buffy: OK.

Elmira: Oh now. Oh, I didn't know that I could've jumped in. I would have been jumping in. Ah, my teaching experience was at Kankakee, the old Kankakee High School and I married. And then after several children were born, I began to substitute and the I went to KCC at the request of the department when Richard Yohnka was so grievously suffering, and I finished out his, one of his quarters out there, and then I worked as a behavior modificationist for a period, and then I was asked to come to Olivet to teach art. I did that for a while when Bishop Mac wanted me. Since four of our sons had gone to Mac, I said "okay." There was paying time and I liked Mac anyway, so I taught six years at Mac and after that or as I was finishing at Mac, KCC asked me to come back and teach World Literature so I really completed my teaching at KCC—second time around, this time in English.

Interviewer Buffy: Where were you formally educated?

Suzanne: Oh, I went to Rosary Collage. I was accepted at St. Mary's in South Bend. My mother got the bill for the uniform which was 100 dollars, and I had taken two years of Latin in one year so I could go there. Um but there was no discussion, and um of course I benefited from the Latin but I did not go to St. Mary's of Notre Dame, I went to Rosary College and for 2 years, but I wasn't able to get the courses I wanted. I uh, I had a very good teacher for portraits which studied Oxford at the same school at Oxford in England but other than that I was just taking the same courses over and they were called 1, 2, 3 and so I transferred to the U of I and I graduated from the U of I and uh, then uh, I got my masters degree in Mexico where I studied all the crafts that I had wanted to study when I was young and couldn't find anyone.

Universities did not have these things. You could not take weaving for instance; you might be able to take sewing. You could not take jewelry, you could not take sculpture, and would not be able to take ceramics. You couldn't take print making. None of these courses were offered at the University of Illinois when I went there, so no one was able to take them because there weren't available. I was very frustrated.

Interviewer Buffy: Now Elmira where was your education?

Elmira: I attended the college in Denver, CO…senior Women College and now Regis University that would be where I would be connected at this point and some courses at Loyola University in Chicago.

Interviewer Jamiee: You often say that your mother was well educated. Do you know where she went to school?

Suzanne: She went to ISU and she went to St. Mary's in South Bend. She was for her period, and she died in 2000 at the age of 95 and in her period at Manteno, there where probably one or two other women who had college educations. I think that that made a great deal of difference. Both my parents were really very well educated in their way. My father was very well informed. His brother had gone into Notre Dame on a scholarship and became a famous football player and coach under Knute Rockne for six year underKnute Rockne.

Elmira: He is in the Football Hall of Fame.

Interviewer Lonny: What um--to just go back in time just a little bit, when World War II started even prior before Pearl Harbor what was your family's reaction?

Suzanne: Oh to the war?

Interviewer Lonny: Yes.

Suzanne: Oh I think you have to understand that the French where very even and moderate tempered, and this was certainly something that was true in are family. When I read about people having great celebrations at the end of the war I think about how we where just very relieved, but there where no celebrations. We where not made to worry, we followed, and my father too, I was in high school during the war, and I followed the news, and I remember very carefully in the Chicago Tribune, but aside from the rationing and things like that I don't think we where made to worry about any possible invasion or anything. We certainly knew of "Mantenoites" going off and we say a lot of the…they hung in the windows, I think they were purple or something…a hanging with one star if one your children died, and then there would be put another star out if another one died—you would see some of that in Manteno.

Elmira: I remember the windows, the blue windows, the dark house, and the canteen, which was a phenomenon at that time, that was on main street, and I was 7 years younger, so I was playing with army jeeps in the dirt with neighborhood kids at that time and I heard all the typewriters, the typewriter keys. . . and I took it very seriously, and at the end of the war I remember the people in the streets. Manteno just shut down and everybody came out into the streets, "the war is over, the war is over." What that concept to me was as a child I'm not sure, but I felt the relief in relation.

Suzanne: Well the bells of the churches all rang at the end of the war, which was August 15, 1945 I think. It was also a holy day obligation for Catholics, the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. So, that was a holy day. It certainly is a great sense of relief, but nothing like you hear about what happened in Chicago, or in New York City.

Interviewer Lonny: Or even today for example.

Suzanne: Yeah, because I credit it to this, what I call is the evenness of the French temperament. Also the French did not, they mourned people who died, but they accept, they are still like this, they accepted death as part of life as something you just have to accept. It's a very different attitude then perhaps other groups.

Elmira: I remember I ah, my father's uncle Joe who lived just across on 121 and say that there were many Smith family members living within blocks of us. We could cut across our street, go right through to Aunt Ida's, go right through our cousins Mary Theresa Smith Martin and almost, well at least what--four blocks, there Smith dwellings, so it was a family feeling again in Manteno walking about as a kid. But I recall my dad's Uncle Joe was very interested in politics, the politics associated with the war, and he would play cards, as Suzanne said, they loved to play cards on Sunday afternoon, and as a child I would be groveling to play bridges as a "dummy" so I sat there this little kid with my ears open and my father's uncle smoking his pipe and getting ashes on his vest and he would be talking about "it's propaganda, it's propaganda" so there was some individual pockets of strong feeling and interchange on political subject although the general tenor might had been that it was, you know, the French took things as. . .

Suzanne: Well there was gasoline rationing and even ah, my father had to, even with the business, he had to he had only a certain allotment of gas to use for trucks. I think that affected people's psyche because you really couldn't go anywhere, you couldn't go on a long vacation anywhere.

Interviewer Buffy: I'd like to know—this is off the subject, but I would like to know why you established your beautiful museum, Suzanne?

Suzanne: Because of my great love of printing and illustration, and books, yes. Because I collected things and I don't suppose I thought of it when I was a child or ever, ever imagined I would have it ever, but it just developed. But I like museums.

Interviewer Jamiee: Oh yes there are very strong interests.

Suzanne: Yes there are very strong interests in libraries and great libraries and museums.

Interviewer Buffy: You consider that part of your French heritage then?

Suzanne: I think the French, the French very much esteemed education. And I don't know if that's what they were so terribly, deeply cultivated but the French in France and the French in Canada have a great interest in and admiration of the arts and if you are in Paris or you are in French regions, you would find streets named after writers-artists with great interests in these things, and at one time Paris was the center of the art world, its no longer that. New York tends to be the center today. But, it still lingers, this appreciation of art. They may not know a lot about it, but there's great appreciation and I think a love of such things came from that French side. And we had an artist in the family. We had an oil painting from her—which I didn't think was very good—but there was an artist in the family and we have writers in some of the young members.

Elmira: We had several writers. Some are involved in the arts right now—Jean Turesses Toussaint.

Suzanne: Yes, one is an authority on Quebecois theatre, and Pierre [Lefevre] won a 2,000 dollar prize in Montreal, Canada for his short story when he was about eighteen, so he was a writer and he was in book fairs and newspapers. Ah….they are interested in the arts but ah…did not produce any visual artists recently, however, if you grew up in a town like L'Acadie with that magnificent church and some L'Acadie came from a very tiny town, were great artists, Canadian-French artist, whose work is on display at the Museum National Quebec Museum, Quebec City. I think he would have observed a lot, he would have seen a lot, he would have seen the work of craftsmanship, he would have seen beautiful vessels, he would have seen beautiful vestments, hand embroidered with gold trim and so on, at mass, and he would have known that Henri Bourassa had came from L'Acadie. I think all of that makes a difference.

Elmira: We credit with art our interest in cultural interest in our French language heritage.

Interviewer Jamiee: Are many of the pieces in your museum from family? Are they part of family heirlooms?

Suzanne: Ah…no. No printing is part of that. These portraits are oil paintings. These articles come from England and they come from France. Things come from all over. Excuse me.

Interviewer Buffy: We would like you to take us on a tour of your favorite things?

Suzanne: Oh, well that ought to be interesting…well there are a great number of them a great number of favorite things. On the piano, because I never had a place to put it before I had this house, there is a carved inscription on slate done by Father Edward Cabish who was one of the great stonecutters in inscriptions in this country. And he taught at St. Ambrose College and I had commission from him in the 70's back in that college. Its on the piano—if you walk down you will see it-- and it says "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" by John Keats. And that's my credo, a thing of beauty you don't get tired of, and it will continue even as it gets old, to still have something to give you. It will give you a lot of energy and happiness and pleasure.

Interviewer Buffy: We are going to take some still photographs. We have run out of our videotape, which is fine. We are going to take some still photographs and digital photographs and we are going to continue taping some of the things you tell us. But if you would like to give us a tour, we would love to have one.