Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lea: French Talk in Cohoes

Lea, still speaking French in Cohoes....

Although I usually do not write about the living, I want to make a small exception to tell you, dear cousins, about Lea who is truly a special lady.  Lea's maiden name was St. Hilaire and she grew up in "The Orchard", an area of Cohoes west of the the falls where her grandfather bought a large tract of land and farmed. Her father was Alfred St. Hilaire and her mother was Rosalie Chouiniere.  Her grandfather was Louis St Hilaire, born in 1858 in Napierville, Québec (Just a little north of the US-Canada border) and her grandmother was Elisa Paré; they were married in Napierville and emigrated to Cohoes in the 19th century.  Louis St. Hilaire's father was Jean Louis St. Hilaire (also called Thomas) and his mother was Émélie Mongeau.

When I was a young girl, I probably met Lea several times because she often visited her cousin and his wife, Arthur St. Hilaire and his wife Muriel Etta Wills who were my uncle and aunt.  Of course I didn't remember her, I was young and unimpressed by tradition at that time!  Luckily, in the past year I  was advised by another cousin to "go see Lea" and that is exactly what I did!  What a wonderful time I spent with "Lea of the Orchard".

Lea grew up speaking French and English; most of her schooling was in French. She always spoke in French with her grandparents. She still loves to speak the French she remembers which now is mostly songs and prayers she learned as a child.  I have visited Lea in recent months, her health is not the best.  She has many stories about growing up French Canadian in Cohoes.  In the coming months, I hope to share some audio clips of Lea telling some of her stories.  Lea is one of the last of a rare kind...a true FrancoAmerican and one of the kindest and most gentle ladies of her era. 

The streets of Cohoes once rang out with French in the same way that today Spanish is heard in large and small cities in New York. Children were taught French in school but were also taught school in French!  Church services and social gatherings were conducted in French.  Sometime soon after World War II, that all changed and today there is no longer any French to be heard in Cohoes.  The French schools are long gone; the French Catholic churches have closed.

By the early 1990s, the Albany Times Union story lamented the sad decline of French and Franco traditions in the story below...
click on the image to enlarge and read with more ease


  1. Thanks for the interesting article. My name is Joseph Bessette and my dad was from Cohoes. My aunt lived in "The Orchard" section of Cohoes mentioned in the article. I remember seeing the bilingual "Bessette and Sons" signs on White Street as a child and always wondered if we were related. I now live in Louisiana where French is also vanishing, but ironically, since my mother was Hispanic I am fluent in Spanish.

  2. This is so fascinating. My father is from Cohoes (b 1924) and his paternal grandmother was of French Canadian descent (neé Mary Borden). My dad has said that that side of the family spoke French. I wish I knew more about the Bordens and their history. I do hope to one day. Thank you for sharing your family stories!

  3. My Grandmother Eunice was born in Cohoes about 1897. She died when my Mother was quite young so most of family history was lost. No birth certificate found etc.

    Grandfather's Irish baptismal record says he married an Eunice Shoin in Albany on April 2, 1917.

    Believe Shoin is a shortened & misspelled variant of Choiniere/Chouiniere. Any more information on Chouiniere in Cohoes would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, Jim Stritzel e-mail

  4. My mother had a cousin Rosalie Chounierre who lived in Vermont in the early 1900s. I have not tracked down her subsequent life but its a possibility this Chounierre family were from the St Jean vicinity between Montreal and Vermont.

  5. My name is Michelle. I live in Québec City. I am interesed in genealogy since around 2005. Thomas and Emilie are my great great grand-parents. I found their photos throught ancestry and subsequently on this website. I have a family reunion on the next weekend and I am very anxious to show the photos to everyone who are related to Thomas and Emilie. We are descendants of Guillaume Guérin St-Hilaire. My grandmother was married in Cohoes, her name is Laurette (Lorette)St-Hilaire, she came back to Canada but many of her siblings lived in the USA. Their father was Moise St-Hilaire. I wish I could find other photos or articles like this one. Thanks