By Debbie Hovanasian
Long before he became a priest, the Rev. Richard Santerre, who was recently named the 2014 Franco-American of the Year, attended meetings in the mid-1960s for the 1968 centennial celebration of St. Jean-Baptiste Parish.
At the time, the Franco-American who had grown up speaking French at home in Lowell and North Chelmsford, had already written several pieces about Franco-American life and literature.
When the committee decided on the need for a commemorative booklet featuring the parish and Franco-American history, Santerre readily agreed.
He was, he said, unaware that there was little in terms of written history -- just a booklet of photographs from a previous parish anniversary celebration.
Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
The task of recording the parish and Franco-American history from 1868 to 1968 ultimately turned into a years-long project of meticulously tracking down dates, names, accomplishments, photographs and milestones for a community that was the center of life for hundreds of Franco-Americans, many of whom came to Lowell from Quebec and other Canadian provinces during the Industrial Revolution to find work.
By 1969, Santerre had accumulated enough research material to start his book, "Saint Jean Baptiste Parish and the Franco-Americans of Lowell, Massachusetts." Over twenty five years, he wrote it in French by hand, rather than a typewriter or a computer, because "it gives you time to think about what you are writing," he said.
The timing of the French-language release was unplanned and ironic -- June 1993, around the same time the parish had been closed by the Archdiocese of Boston.
"I had no idea it would happen that way," said Santerre, who was ordained in 1982 after first teaching French at Boston College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The book's epilogue, which records Lowell's Franco-American and St. Jean-Baptiste history from the "centennial to the present" took another ten years.
Then there was the English translation, released earlier this year, which required Santerre, who resides in Cambridge, to work closely with Lowell-based translators Claire Quintal and the Rev. Lucien Sawyer, OMI.
In the end, people from Greater Lowell and beyond have, in either French or English, a historically accurate and inspiring story about a determined French community who came to Lowell speaking little or no English, yet founded several churches, schools, an orphanage, civic groups, cultural offerings and newspapers.
Through many changes over the decades, that Franco-American community remains strong. That's evidenced by the active Franco-American Committee, its cultural offerings, community involvement, Franco-American Week and the annual naming of a Franco-American of the Year.
The award has been given out annually since 1975 to an individual who must be of high moral character, speak French and is currently active in perpetuating the French language and its cultural traditions.
Committee member Albert Daigle said there was no one better to honor this year than the person who has worked tirelessly to tell the story of the French Canadians who came to Lowell to find work and built a thriving community.
Daigle, a longtime friend of Santerre, nominated the priest, French professor, author, graduate of Boston College and devoted Franco-American for the award.
"I've always felt he's been very much involved in promoting the French language, so it was about time he was named," Daigle said, adding that committee members agreed immediately.
The trick, said Daigle, was to get him to Lowell to surprise him with the award, especially since he no longer drives. Daigle's son went to Cambridge earlier in the summer to drive Santerre to Lowell under Santerre's assumption that he was coming to sign copies of his book.
"When they announced that they were giving this award to me, I was speechless," Santerre said. "As a priest I'm not supposed to be speechless, but I was."
He's humbled not only by the award, but also by the warm response and positive comments he's received about the book.
Santerre said it was especially surprising when, on a cold day in February this year, more than 100 people showed up for a book signing of the English-language translation at St. Joseph the Worker Shrine.
Dozens more bought copies ahead and left them to be signed. Many people from his past, including parishioners from the former St. Therese Church in Dracut (now St. Marguerite D'Youville), where he had served as a priest for several years, came to see him. As the long line formed, dozens chatted with him about Franco-American history and offered praise for the book.
"I'm just amazed by it. All I know is that I kept going and never thought of the effect (the book) would have," he said, adding that when he had any trouble with the project, he'd just pray and get through it.
"I'm very, very happy and taken aback by all the beautiful comments -- some people in tears," Santerre said. "I'm just glad the story is not lost. What happened is not lost. It's the history of people's lives, and we don't want to lose it."
"Saint Jean Baptiste Parish and the Franco-Americans of Lowell, Massachusetts" is available at St. Joseph the Worker Shrine, 37 Lee St., Lowell.