Diving into history with the Sentinelle Affair

Diving into history with the Sentinelle Affair

Two of the main characters of the Sentinelle Affair are Providence Bishop William Augustine Hickey, left, and Elphege Diagnault, editor of La Sentinelle.

WOONSOCKET – The Museum of Work & Culture will hold its next free virtual Valley Talk this Sunday, March 7, at 1 p.m. on Zoom, focusing on the Sentinelle Affair, an almost civil-war-like event coming out of St. Ann’s Parish in the early 20th century.

Paul Bourget, a writer and a historical re-enactor, will lead the presentation on one of Woonsocket’s most divisive times. The program is part of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s “Taking a Stand in Rhode Island” series focusing on residents bringing about change.

Bourget said the Sentinelle Affair was one of the best examples of both sides taking a stand and not backing down to the point it pushed friends against each other and broke up families.

The Sentinelle Affair occurred in Woonsocket from 1924 to 1929. At the time, Bishop William Augustine Hickey was the bishop of Providence. Hickey was involved in creating Providence College and decided to keep his vision going of creating more Catholic high schools, according to Bourget. To do that, he needed money, and decided to use funds collected by Catholic churches.

Bourget said local French Canadian Catholics were not happy about this idea. They believed parish funds should be used for parochial uses, not dioceses, and should stay within the parish.

At the same time, Bourget added, an effort to assimilate different foreign nationalities and have English as the common language was happening in the state. He said that French Canadians objected to this, as they considered faith, Roman Catholic traditions and language their three cornerstones. They felt that Bishop Hickey was violating those sacred issues, he said.

In 1922, Hickey started a capital drive to raise $1 million from the parishes to build Mount St. Charles Academy, among other schools. Every parish had a quota. The Sentinellists, as they were called, took a stand against this fundraising. Elphege Daignault, editor of the La Sentinelle newspaper, was one of the lead agitators.

The unrest started at St. Ann’s Parish and spread throughout the state as well as New England and Canada. Sentinellists attacked speeches from the Catholic Church and held pew strikes, refusing to pay the “pew rent” to sit in the pew at church. With more and more support, the Sentinellists sued Bishop Hickey over his right to appropriate church funds, taking the case to Rome in 1928.

Bishop Hickey spoke out against the Sentinellists, and the group lost their suit under canon law. The bishop excommunicated 61 men and essentially fired two priests for supporting the movement.

“In the 1920s, this was the worst scandal on your head, even worse than having a letter ‘A,’” Bourget said.

The excommunicated were given a year to recant their position. In May 1929, all 61 recanted.

Bourget said the movement went underground after 1929. Growing up, he said, the affair even affected his family, with certain names going unmentioned. His mother, he said, was on the side of the bishop, while his father supported the Sentinellists.

Bourget has since written a book about the affair and said interview subjects would still get quiet about the topic during his research. He was never allowed access to Hickey’s notes, letters and diaries, he said.

“Religion in those days was the heart of your life,” he said. “To me it was the perfect storm.”

Bourget will share more history of the Sentinelle Affair during his virtual Valley Talk this weekend.

To register for the talk, visit bit.ly/2LrF3j4.