A Star on Prince Street
By Louise Peloquin
On March 1, 1826, Lowell was incorporated as a town. The run-up to the bicentennial is a propitious time to “meet” people who have contributed to our hometown’s cultural heritage.
Let’s take peeks into the past with posts on Louis-Alphonse Biron, an immigrant from Québec who established a print shop and a newspaper called “L’Etoile” (“The Star”) on 24-26 Prince Street.
Among the three hundred odd French newspapers published in New England since the second half of the nineteenth century, Nashua’s “L’Impartial” (1898-1964) and Lowell’s “L’Étoile” (1886-1957) owe their existence to a direct descendent of Pierre Biron who, in the 17th century, left his town of Sainte Hermine in Vendée, a region in the west of France, in order to work for the Jesuits in Québec. This immigrant’s name was Louis-Alphonse Biron.
Louis-A. Biron was born into a family of farmers on July 28, 1861. His parents, Etienne Biron and Marie-Louise Laroche, lived in Saint-Louis de Lotbinière, a village on the south bank of the Saint Laurence river. When young Marie-Louise passed away, her mother stepped in to raise Louis-A. and his nine siblings. During Louis-A.’s early adolescence, Etienne died as well.
The Lotbinière parish pastor recognized Louis-A.’s potential and decided to instruct him until the age of thirteen. The young man went on to study at the Nicolet seminary for seven years. He later asserted that his academic training had instilled in him the perseverance and patience to face life’s challenges.
Louis-A.’s cousins, poets Pamphile Lemay and Apollinaire Gingras, were making a living by the pen in Québec. Their success prompted the young man to choose a career in journalism. He debuted in Québec city with various reporting jobs as well as editing in publishing houses. Despite his strong ties to the homeland, the growing opportunities south of the Canadian border and a taste for adventure drew him to New England where he felt driven to serve the thousands of French-Canadian immigrants who had flocked to the mill towns in search of jobs and better living conditions for their large families.
His sister Lumina was working as a spinner in a Manchester New Hampshire cotton mill. Her enthusiastic correspondence prompted her young brother to join her in “les Etats” (“the States”). Consequently, he arrived in Manchester in 1890, found employment at the French daily “L’Avenir National” (“The National Future”) and became founder Joseph-Edouard Bernier’s right-hand man.
Louis-A. moved to Lowell to work at Maxime Lépine’s daily, “L’Etoile”, founded in 1886 by the town’s “Cercle Canadien” (“Canadian circle”). Nashua New Hampshire’s French-Canadian population was rapidly growing and wanted to benefit from its own French newspaper. To meet this demand, Louis-A. founded “L’Impartial” in 1898. In 1917, he handed over its management to nephew Armand Biron.
In 1910, Louis-A. Biron married Marie-Annette Thibaudeau, a young teacher who had graduated from Québec city’s “École Normal des Ursulines” (teacher-training higher education institution). The couple had three children, Louis, Jeanne (Mrs. Léon Lavallee) and Marthe (Mrs. Laval Peloquin).
1910 was also the year when Louis-A. and his colleague Paul Chaput, founder of the “Courrier de Salem”, acquired “L’Etoile.” It successfully transitioned from a weekly to a daily and established its reputation all over New England. Louis-A. later became the sole proprietor and manager.
The paper adopted a modern, dynamic approach highlighting Lowell’s Franco-American culture and identity while including national as well as international stories. However, capturing Franco-American life was always “L’Etoile’s” main asset.
Biron and his team boosted “L’Etoile’s” notoriety all across New England. For example, renown journalists Arthur Smith and Charles Daoust brought their French-language expertise. Firebrand newspaperman Wilfred Beaulieu interned at “L’Etoile” before founding his “Travailleur” (“Worker”) in 1930. Edmond Turcotte served as editor-in-chief for eight years.
Writers such as Yvonne LeMaître, Louis-Alphonse Nolin and Joseph Laferrière offered literary contributions to the paper. Franco-American poet laureate Rosaire Dion-Lévesque published in both “L’Impartial” and “L’Etoile.” Antoine Clément, “L’Etoile’s” last editor-in-chief, distinguished himself by his passionate pleas in favour of maintaining Franco-American identity in Lowell and beyond.
Perpetuating French-language journalism in New England was not only Biron’s vocation but also a passion which he fervently transmitted to others. The Prince Street shop welcomed countless interns eager to learn the tricks of the printing trade. Louis-A. sent out his troops all over New England to serve French-language publications.
The Prince Street workshop also printed many regional papers. Among them are the “Courrier de Salem”, the “Courrier de Lawrence”, the “Journal de Lawrence”, the “Bulletin Français” of Lynn, the “Lynnois” of Lynn, the “Journal de Fitchburg.”
In 1937, “L’Etoile” celebrated its golden jubilee. On this occasion, the Société Historique Franco-Américaine” (“Franco-American Historical Society”) solemnly granted the newspaper and its editor-owner the “Grand Prix” medal. But Biron, who always referred to himself as “a humble man among the humble”, shunned public recognition. When the French government named him “Officier des Palmes Académiques” to recognize his cultural accomplishments, he respectfully declined the prestigious international distinction. This brings to mind the words of Antonine Maillet, first Acadian woman to win France’s most coveted literary award, the Prix Goncourt (equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize), in 1979 for her novel “Pélagie la Charrette” about Acadia’s exiled French population, a story made famous by H. W. Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline.” “Each and every one of us has a single word with our lives” she said, “and this word must be that of our people.” For Louis-A. Biron, the only reward was his mission – serving his ethnic community.
In the 1940’s, constraints brought by World War II hit “L’Etoile” considerably. Nonetheless, the newspaper managed to reach its diamond jubilee. The man known as “the tall old oak of the Franco-American press” worked ceaselessly until a severe case of pneumonia took his life on February 23, 1947 at the age of 86.
With thirty-seven years at the head of “L’Etoile”, Louis-A. Biron was the longest-lasting editor and proprietor of a French-language New England newspaper. The Franco-American community mourned the loss of one its most valiant champions and defenders. Antoine Clément paid homage to his director by declaring that the simple fact of maintaining the newspaper was Monsieur Biron’s priceless contribution to the cultural advancement of Lowell’s Franco-American population. Clément added that Biron’s often-repeated recommendation was to put out a local paper tailored to readers’ specific needs and expectations.
Louis-A. Biron lived on through the “Star” he and his team printed out of 24-26 Prince Street. He advised his World War II veteran son and two daughters to continue the mission as long as possible despite financial challenges. Thus, Louis, Jeanne and Marthe carried on with perseverance for ten more years. On August 17, 1957, “L’Etoile” died.
During the June 1977 Franco-American Week, the city of Lowell paid homage to Louis-A. Biron by naming a French-language corner of the Pollard Memorial Library “Salle Louis-A. Biron” (Louis-A. Biron Room). The following plaque was put up on June 24, 1986:
Salle Louis-A. Biron
Lowell City Library
Dedicated June 19th, 1977
To commemorate the contribution of the publisher of
1886 – L’Etoile – 1957
Lowell’s French language daily newspaper
Né à Lotbinière Québec, en 1861 Débute à L’Avenir National de Manchester, N.H.
Fonde L’Impartial de Nashua, N.H. en 1898
Acquéreur de L’Etoile de Lowell en 1910
Décédé à Lowell en 1947
Twenty-two French language newspapers were published in Lowell between 1881 and 1957. Le Journal se Lowell, founded in 1975, perpetuates this proud French publication tradition.
June 24, 1986
More PIP’s (peeks into the past) about “L’Etoile” to come…