Revolt of the Masses

Ethnic tensions between Irish and French Canadians in Fall River

HUMANITIES, September/October 2009, Volume 30, Number 5

From Mass Moments, a website ( that is a daily almanac of significant events in Massachuetts’s history. It can also be received as a podcast or RSS feed.

In August 1884, the French Canadian priest assigned to Notre Dame, the church that served the French Canadians in the Flint Village area of Fall River, died suddenly. Three months later, the Bishop named a new pastor: Father Samuel P. McGee, an Irishman. The French Canadians were outraged. When the new priest arrived to say Mass in mid-December, he found the doors and windows nailed shut; when he managed to get into the building, several of the parishioners held him captive and threatened to kidnap him should he attempt to return to the church. Father McGee fled the pastoral residence and went into hiding. The Canadians collected money to send a delegation to Rome to plead for the appointment of a French-speaking priest.

Tensions grew worse in the following weeks. Fights broke out between those who were willing to accept the new priest and those who insisted on a French pastor. Angry crowds gathered outside the church and disrupted services. Police were dispatched to the church to prevent “sacrilege.” By January, the newspapers were reporting near-riots. In one instance, a new choir arrived at the church to find the old choir, which had refused to sing for an Irish priest, threatening violence if the singers took their seats. Angry parishioners followed Father McGee out of the church, abusing and threatening him, and “calling him a d——d Irishman.”

On February 13, 1885, the Bishop closed the church and withdrew the priest, explaining that he had “been compelled to this action by the insubordination of some of the flock.” The church reopened the next year, under another Irish pastor, and conflict began again. Ethnic tensions between Irish and French Canadians in Fall River did not ease until the end of the century when the arrival of Portuguese, Greeks, Poles, Lithuanians, and Italian immigrants changed the ethnic, political, and social mix of Fall River and other Massachusetts cities.

Reprinted with permission of Mass Humanities.