Taking a detour from the usual tourist's trail through Salem, Historic Salem Inc. is offering a walking tour of Lower Lafayette Street and The Point this weekend, highlighting the neighborhood's Franco-American heritage.
Two professors at Salem State University, Elizabeth Blood and Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, will be leading the tour, "(Re)Discovering Salem's Franco-American Landscape," Sunday at 2 p.m. It's a repeat of the tour they also conducted last weekend.
While drawing together the sites where French-Canadian immigrants have lived and worked in Salem, the tour also adds substance to a historical narrative that sometimes seems to leap from the Salem Witch Trials to the present day, as if nothing had happened between them.
The walk begins at St. Joseph Church on Lafayette Street — which was closed in 2004 and may be headed for demolition, but still looms large in Salem's Franco-American history.
"St. Joseph was the heart and soul of (Salem's) French-Canadian culture and community," Duclos-Orsello said.
The first St. Joseph Church, a wooden structure built in 1884, was followed by a brick church that burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1914, shortly after it was completed. The current building, built in International style, was finished in 1948.
French-Canadian immigrants started arriving in Salem in the 1860s, Duclos-Orsello said. As this community grew, reaching 20 percent of the population by 1900, St. Joseph expanded its services.
They built a school around the corner on Harbor Street and a rectory just up the street on Lafayette.
Just as the French names of these institutions can still be seen chiseled above their doorways, so the names of many Franco-American families they served can also still be read, inscribed on the city's landscape.
In the neighborhood once known as La Pointe, for example, Duclos-Orsello pointed out the Franco-American names of several businesses on Congress and Dow streets, including Pelletier Awning and Michaud and Raymond Oil Co.
"These are the remnants of a once-vital Franco-American business community," she said.
Drawn to the mill
From that same corner, you can look down Congress Street to Palmer Cove Park, where French-Canadian immigrants played hockey and baseball. The immigrants remain, but now they are most likely to be Latino.
To the east is Shetland Park, once the site of the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Co., where most of the French-Canadian immigrants manufactured textiles. This massive structure, which survived the Great Fire, was another anchor in the life of La Pointe.
"Most of the story that we know of this neighborhood is connected to the boom in industrialization" in the 19th century, Duclos-Orsello said. The French-Canadian immigrants who lived there "were the labor force for this mill. Thousands and thousands and thousands came to work in this mill."
A few of the French names and sites brought to light during the tour would not have been apparent to the uninformed.
At the corner of Park and Dow streets, for example, Duclos-Orsello drew the group's attention to houses where Jean Levesque, mayor of Salem from 1973 to 1983, and Robert St. Pierre, who retired in 2009 after 25 years as police chief, once lived, directly across the street from each other.
The city's French-Canadian heritage is not limited to The Point. Downtown, in front of Old Town Hall, Duclos-Orsello pointed to bricks at the base of the building, on either side of a staircase, where layers of different colored bricks are visible.
At the turn of the 20th century, Old Town Hall, which was always meant to serve as a public market, housed a Franco-American meat market called The Subway Market. When the store moved to Front Street, its basement entrances were sealed with new bricks.
The walking tour ends across the street from St. Joseph in Lafayette Park, where a memorial rises to the 2,105 Franco-Americans from St. Joseph Parish who served in the two World Wars.
The monument was donated to the city by parishioners at a ceremony in 1948 at which Joseph Pelletier, a lawyer and member of St. Joseph's, addressed the crowd.
Speaking in French, he outlined the values he felt its parishioners represented and had fought for, and which may form the most lasting monument to the members of St. Joseph Church, whatever finally happens to the church building itself.
As translated by professor Blood, who along with Duclos-Orsello is descended from French-Canadian immigrants, Pelletier said in part:
"Our country has been great and strong because of its belief in tolerance. ... This monument will strongly attest to our devotion, our patriotism and to the sacrifices of our Americans of French descent. May it always be a source of inspiration for the youth of our city and an example of tolerance and equality."
If you go
What: "(Re)Discovering Salem's Franco-American Landscape," Sundays in September walking tour, part of Sails and Trails Weekend
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where: St. Joseph Church, 135 Lafayette St., Salem, in the parking lot
More information: No registration necessary. No charge, but $10 donation suggested. Visit www.historicsalem.org or call 978-745-0799.