FRENCH. The story of the French in Cleveland is one of individuals and not of a national group. The few French who did come, however, exerted a cultural influence out of proportion to the ethnic group's size. The French were among the first white men to explore what is now Greater Cleveland, and a French trading post was reported at the CUYAHOGA RIVER at TINKER'S CREEK in 1775. French Roman Catholic priests and nuns then came, most prominent among these being URSULINE SISTERS who arrived in Cleveland in 1850 from Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, as educators. Within the Cleveland Diocese, they staffed 25 elementary schools. In Cleveland, 2 high schools--BEAUMONT SCHOOL and Villa Angela--and URSULINE COLLEGE in PEPPER PIKE carry out curriculums structured after the French system of education. The Ursulines were followed by the Ladies of the Sacred Heart of Mary, of the sisterhood in France, who established a temporary asylum for orphan girls in 1851. In 1870 the Catholic Parish of the Annunciation was organized for the French on Hurd St. By 1880 506 French lived in the city. French people who came to Cleveland during the last century never settled in a neighborhood centered around a church as did many other immigrant groups. Independent and individualistic, they scattered to all parts of the city, never really assimilating into the host culture.
However, the French presence was very much felt, since French culture was generally admired by educated Americans. Therefore, concerts of French music or the appearance of noted French actress Sarah Bernhardt served not only the small local French community but also cultured members of the general population. Although French people by nature avoid "clubs," attempts to create some were made in the 1910s. By that time, 494 French resided in Cleveland. The oldest club, no longer in existence, was the French Table (La Table Francaise), composed mostly of men who wanted to perfect their knowledge of French and meet fellow Frenchmen. Then in 1916, the Circle of French Lectures (Cercle des Conferences Francaises), mostly for women, was established. It was still in existence in the 1980s. The organizations attracted both immigrants and native Americans desirous of participating in French cultural activities. In 1918 the French House (La MAISON FRANCAISE) was founded by a teacher, Dr. EMILE DE SAUZE, noted for his method of teaching French. This club's headquarters are in Paris, the French Alliance (L'Alliance Francaise). Membership is open to all, especially to French teachers and their students. Other small clubs were established in later years. By 1930 the number of French living in Cleveland had risen to 846, with over 1,000 in the Greater Cleveland area. The growth was caused, in part, by an influx of war brides. The French War Bride Club (La Gauloise) organized in 1935, and the Ohio chapter of the Natl. French War Brides Club served this new segment of the population and continued to do so for a new generation of war brides after WORLD WAR II; this new influx helped raise the city's French population from 517 in 1940 to 836 in 1950. Two other groups were founded in the postwar period, Les Bavards for west side French-speaking Clevelanders, and the Friendship Club (L'Amicale) for east-siders, started in 1970 for professional men and women.
From the 1960s through the 1970s, the area's French population never exceeded 1,000. In 1980 only 604 persons of French birth were estimated to be living in Cuyahoga County. In the 1990 census, an estimated 156 people of French birth were living in Cleveland proper, while 24,438 county residents felt that French was their principal ancestry. However, the traditional high stature of French culture and art continue to exert a strong influence in the city. In 1986 the CLEVELAND INSTITUTE OF MUSIC celebrated 55 years of teaching the harp with Carlos Salzedo (born in Arcachon, France) and his foremost student, Alice Chalifoux. The CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA has hosted many French performers and composers. The establishment of the Darius Milhaud Society in Cleveland in 1984 had national significance, with its chief purpose of encouraging the performance of Milhaud's music throughout the U.S. It is, of course, impossible to determine the exact role exerted by the small numbers of French immigrants upon the city's continuing interest in French culture; however, this immigrant group has, directly or indirectly, exerted proportionately more of a cultural influence on the city than any other group.
Helene N. Sanko
John Carroll Univ.