In 1869, Father Dufresne arrived in the new city of Holyoke, Massachusetts, assigned to parish boundaries within the Flats of Holyoke. The Flats were characterized by rapidly expanding mills and overcrowded tenements, cramped with French Canadian workers. His official assignment arose in response to the religious needs of this growing community. His personal mission, however, was the preservation of the French culture despite the social and economic changes facing his people in this new country. During his tenure, Father Dufresne did not learn to speak or read English, nor did he recognize the laws of this country, relying only upon the experiences reaped from his success in St. Hyacinth, Canada, where his leadership and power reached far beyond the pulpit and into all facets of his parishioners’ lives.
The rapid expansion of industry brought new populations to the city. Religion flourished and grand cathedrals were erected throughout the city to meet the needs of the neighborhoods. Father Dufresne’s parish boundaries limited the affluence of his parish to a laboring class. In order to keep pace with the other parishes, and retain his parishioners, he required a cathedral in keeping with those in more affluent neighborhoods. His empire was erected upon the backs of a poor laboring class. His pulpit was a place of manipulation, slander and excommunication of those opposing his authoritarian style.
The thoughtful comment of a local reporter, reflecting upon the legal actions taken against Father Dufresne, gave birth to this story.
“This experience, as well as some that the Irish Catholics have gone through, is teaching these people a little independence. It is encouraging to see the superstitious veneration for the priests weakening, and when the people learn that a priest is to be blamed when he does wrong the same as any other man, the priests themselves will be more apt to do right.”
Springfield Daily Republican, October 26, 1879
The Father Bourassa of this novel is a fictional composite and does not reflect the true character of just one historical figure. Rather the fictional character of Father Bourassa evolved through the discovery of a series of stories appearing in the Hampden County column of the Springfield Daily Republican newspaper from a period of 1875 to 1880, all pertaining to dissatisfaction with the clergy of the region.