Story By John Murray
Joan Hartley has been representing Waterbury in the State Legislature since 1984 and is one of the most powerful and influential politicians in Connecticut. During that time, she has honored more than a thousand community leaders and individuals with official citations.
On Friday the roles were reversed, and Hartley was on the receiving end as she was presented proclamations and citations from Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, U.S. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes and even one from her colleagues in the state legislature presented by Dr. William Pizzuto, Geraldo Reyes Jr., and Ron Napoli Jr..
“It’s so much easier to be on the other side giving these citations than receiving them,” Hartley said. “But I will cherish these.”
The magnificent plaza in front of Waterbury City Hall was the scene of the ceremony, and the Chase Municipal Building is in the background.
Hartley was being honored as the French-Canadian Mayor for the Day in a ceremony on a sun splashed marble and brick plaza in front of Waterbury City Hall.
Speeches were made, several songs were sung, including O Canada, and Hartley pulled hard on a rope to hoist the Canadian flag up a pole on the western portion of the plaza.
State Senator Joan Hartley hoisting the Canadian Flag in front of Waterbury City Hall.
Master of Ceremony, Francine Nido, told the crowd of fifty that Friday was International St. Johns Day, a holiday celebrated on June 24th every year. The holiday commemorates the death of John the Baptist, who is said to have been executed on this day in AD 36. John the Baptist is perhaps best known for baptizing Jesus Christ.
“Celebrations like this have been taking place in North America for over a century now,” Nido said. “Especially in communities with Little Canadas, which Waterbury has been known for.”
With the Archdioceses of Hartford dismantling parishes, Nido said, “it’s especially important that we gather together today to celebrate our culture, our community and our shared faith and love for our heritage.”
At one point Nido turned to Hartley and asked how long she had been in the legislature.
“An eternity,” Hartley laughed. While some criticize the 38 years she has served in the state legislature as too long, Hartley has used the time to grow into one of the most effective legislators in Hartford, and she knows how to bring money and projects back to her district.
“Joan has been a great role model for girls growing up here in Waterbury,” Nido said. “She showed us we can do important things.”
The choir from St Anne’s Church sang the French national anthem and O Canada.
Board of Aldermen President Paul Pernerewski represented Mayor Neil O’Leary at the ceremony.
“I always enjoy doing these mayors for the day that celebrate the great cultural diversity we have here in Waterbury,” Pernerewski said. “We have so many different cultures who have become part of Waterbury, but still maintain their traditions and still maintain their connections to the past and to where they came from.”
Pernerewski then read a proclamation that swept through Hartley’s life.
Joan is the second eldest of 10 children of Lauren and Irene Vogel. She grew up in Waterbury in the East End and attended St. Anne’s School and Sacred Heart High School. Joan’s father was first generation English speaking. He immigrated from Canada to a largely French community in Fall River, Massachusetts during the 1920s, and subsequently moved to Waterbury after losing everything in the Depression.
Joan’s mother was one of 13 children. She worked the family farm from a young age and traveled from Cheshire to Waterbury to attend weekly mass at St. Anne’s Church. Joan worked her way through college and graduate school and began her professional career as a middle school social studies teacher in Waterbury. She started the first public school girls’ basketball and softball teams.
The twin spires of St. Anne’s Church dominated the South End of Waterbury for 100 years and was the epicenter of the French-Canadian community in the city.
Hartley moved to the private sector rising to the position of HR manager for the largest healthcare insurer in Connecticut. After being elected to the Connecticut house representing the 73rd district in 1984, she rose to the position of Speaker Pro Tem, the third highest ranking position in the House of Representatives. Joan was elected to the Connecticut Senate 15th district where she currently serves as the chair of the Commerce Committee, Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee, and as a member of the bank’s regulations review, executive nominations, and legislative management committees.
State Representative Bill Pizzuto said, “I’m the freshman legislator here and I have to tell you that no one provides better constituent service then Senator Joan Hartley.”
Ron Napoli Jr. is the State Representative in the Bunker Hill and Overlook neighborhoods in Waterbury and his first job out of college was to clerk for Senator Hartley.
“I couldn’t keep up with her then,” Napoli said, “and now I’m lucky enough to serve with her 20 something years later, and I still can’t keep up with her today. She covers a lot of ground.”
State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. has forged a tight relationship with Hartley. “The Hartleys showed me who they are by getting on a plane with Victor Lopez and I and going to Puerto Rico to serve those affected by Hurricane Maria,” Reyes said. “That is where you see where the rubber hits the road, when people actually put their words into action. Year after year she has been voted the most powerful woman in Waterbury. Joan has been doing this for 40 years and has mentored me in life and in Hartford.”
After listening to glowing words about her impact on greater Waterbury, Hartley went to the microphone to talk about her life.
“I did not learn to speak French,” she said. “And as my parents put it, I married outside and that was actually to their chagrin, because truth be known, so did my other nine siblings. My father would say to my mom, ‘Irene it’s another Irishman.’”
Joan and her Irishman, Atty Jim Hartley.
Hartley said her parents were first generation English speakers.
“My mom’s family was from France,” Hartley said. “My dad immigrated from Normandy, to what then was commonly known as New France. That was Canada, and in Canada their hopes were for gaining social mobility and for religious security, and like 1000s of French immigrants, they settled in Quebec, near Montreal.”
Years later, after they crossed the border to America the border was sealed and was closed to most Europeans. Once in the US, Hartley said, most French-Canadian immigrants settled in New England, particularly in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, for the purpose of working in the textile mills.
Fall River and Waterbury both had St. Anne’s Parishes, and a spiritual connection to each other. When the mills in Fall Rivers took a downturn hundreds of French-Canadians moved to Waterbury with the promise of good jobs in the manufacturing and production of metals.
“History does repeat itself,” Hartley said. “Just as the Connecticut Protestant Yankees were beginning to accept the Irish Catholics in Connecticut, a new wave of immigrants began to come in, the French-Canadians.”
And when the French-Canadians arrived, the Connecticut Yankees found them more distasteful than the Irish. Even though the Irish and French-Canadians both practiced an alien religion (Catholicism), the Irish spoke English.
“That Canadians deigned to worship in French was particularly upsetting to the Connecticut Protestant Yankees,” Hartley said, “So the new group set up what was described as Little Canadas. They were French speaking communities that were centered around a church, a parish, and of course, Waterbury’s Little Canada was the Shrine of St. Anne’s parish.”
Hartley said, “Their assimilation was not immediate, and the Connecticut Labor Department reported that the Canadians were a disrupter. They were described as a foreign element. And later the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the French-Canadians were becoming Americanized, as they dropped their worst characteristics and were gaining better ones, whatever that was.”
An 1885 Connecticut Bureau of Labor report deplored the French-Canadian migration stating, “They have no intention of becoming Americans. They come to earn what money they can for a few years. When they have saved a modest sum they intend to return to their country. They form a intentionally foreign element in our midst.”
As she spoke about the French-Canadian experience in Waterbury, Hartley likened it to the current wave from Central American the Caribbean, Syria, and Afghanistan.
“We all come from somewhere,” Hartley said. “And I am proud to say I am French Canadian.” •
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