Windham's French-Canadian community:by: Tom Beardsley:
Willimantic has a rich French Canadian history. The first immigrants came from Quebec to work in Willimantic's cotton and silk mills, around the time of the Civil War. They were described in a 1920 history of Windham County as a "frugal, industrious and hard working class of people" who became "good citizens." In reality, the new immigrants faced discrimination from their Yankee and Irish hosts. The French Canadians, as with all immigrants to industrial America, established cultures and institutions familiar to them. They formed musical groups, voluntary associations, benefit societies, athletic clubs and sports clubs. Windham's French Canadians formed local branches of the St. Jean Baptiste Society. The Willimantic Society was formed in 1880, and quickly became influential. The Connecticut State Convention was first held in Willimantic in 1885, and the National Convention was held in the city on several occasions.
The St. Jean Baptiste Society evolved from the Saint John the Baptist day, a holiday that originated as a pagan celebration of the summer solstice. During the reign of the French king Clovis, the pagan celebration was Christianized and became a religious celebration of John the Baptist. Saint John is known as the Precursor of Christ, the light of the world, represented by the summer solstice and bonfires.
The religious festival of Jean Baptiste had particular importance for European Catholics. In France the King lighted massive bonfires on the night of June 23. Once in America, the French continued to celebrate the event. The Relations des Jisuites refer to the custom in Quebec City as early as 1636. But it was then a very pious, religious festival, with processions in the streets of the settlement.