AFGS Concept Took Shape with a Visit to Montreal

The seeds that eventually grew to form the American French Genealogical Society were planted in August 1976 when Henri Leblond traveled to Montreal to begin his family research.  Henri was a member of the LeFoyer Club, a French Canadian social organization in northern Rhode Island.

While in Montreal he began thinking about forming a genealogy group within LeFoyer.  Club members expressed an interest in a genealogy club.  So, Leblond approached the board of directors about his idea and they approved his plan and even gave him some “seed money” to get started.

In March of 1977 the LeFoyer Club held a dinner meeting and invited Lucille Legasse, then president of the American Canadian Genealogical Society in Manchester, New Hampshire to address the group about French Canadian genealogy research.  It was a way to “test the waters” to determine the extent of the interest in a genealogy club.  The response was very positive.

On May 25,1977, the first organizational meeting was held.  Over the next several months, a 10-member steering committee was formed to develop a draft constitution and by-laws. Temporary officers were elected: Henri Leblond, Chair; Robert Quintin, Vice-Chair; and Robert Goodreau, Secretary.

Early Library
Charter member Leon Asselin searches for a resource book in our rather limited collection. Photo was taken in 1978.

On January 28, 1977, the first “official” meeting of the LeFoyer genealogy group was held. An election of officers was held, and the constitution and by-laws were approved.  Within a month the club already had 80 members.  However, Henri Leblond, the club’s founder and first president, realized that in order to produce enough funds to develop a research library without having to continuously ask the LeFoyer board for money, it might be better to form a separate non-profit organization with its own members and dues without having to rely on LeFoyer members for support.

There was much discussion as to what the name of the new organization should be.  In April 1978, Henri Leblond announced that the genealogy club name would be the American-French Genealogical Society and would be housed at the LeFoyer Club.  Leblond also designed the Society’s logo, which is still in use today.  Dues were $5 annually!  Life memberships were $100.00.  The first 93 members were deemed to be Charter members.

Membership was growing rapidly.  By the fall of 1978 the AFGS had over 200 members from across New England and Canada.  In October 1978, the Society’s quarterly newsletter, Je Me Souviens, was introduced. It was later to become a bi-annual journal.

Interest in genealogy continued to grow and by the spring of 1979, the AFGS held its first two-day conference.  Guest speakers were featured and admission was just $2.00.  It was so successful that a second conference was held the following year.

Searching for Ancestors
Our library was only open on Tuesdays in the early days.  The researchers worked in the LeFoyer Club Ballroom.  These members appear to be in deep thought about their long-lost ancestors.  Pictured are, from left, past president Lucille Rock, Romeo Soucy, Bob Lachance and Leon Asselin.  This photo was taken in 1980.

The research “library on wheels” continued to grow.  Members donated funds to purchase specific repertoires and there were fundraising events to buy more books.  The library was open on Tuesdays in the LeFoyer banquet hall.  Because LeFoyer rented the hall for wedding receptions and other events, the books had to be put away at the end of the evening on Tuesdays. The holdings were stored in cabinets on wheels that could be easily rolled in and out of closets.

By the fall of 1984, AFGS was boasting that it had “the most extensive French genealogical library outside of Canada.”  That is still true today, although our holdings now include over 20,000 books and 5,000 films and microfiche. The same issue that the AFGS experienced at LeFoyer, was happening again. Space was becoming an issue by the end of the century.

As the end of the 1980s approached, it became apparent that AFGS would soon need to find larger quarters for its ever-growing library. The opportunity arose to rent 3,000 square feet of space in the lower level of the First Universalist Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. At the time the board of directors believed it would be more than adequate to house the library with room to grow over the years.

On Thanksgiving weekend in 1989, the books and other materials were loaded into cars and driven to Woonsocket. Donated shelving was put up and the society’s new home was set to reopen.

The same issue that the AFGS experienced at LeFoyer was happening again. Space was becoming an issue by the end of the century. Moving to new quarters would not be as easy as tossing books in the trunk of a few cars and setting up elsewhere.  The AFGS had a vast library of resources and to move them professionally would cost over $10,000.  In 2000 the board of directors voted to establish a building campaign with a goal of raising $300,000.  The board felt at the time that $300,000 would be sufficient to buy a building with enough space to house the library and have enough room for future expansion.

The membership was very supportive in the effort.  Many pledged funds over several years, others donated large sums outright.  Within six years the society raised over $250,000 just within the membership.

In 2006, rumors were spreading that the First Universalist Church, our landlord, was going to close its doors due to the shrinking number of members in its congregation.  In early 2007, the church board of directors advised us that the church would close in a few months.  Fortunately, the AFGS board had asked the church board for the right of first refusal to purchase the building should the church decide to close its doors and the church elders agreed.

Because AFGS had been in the building since late 1989, the board of directors knew the building’s issues (leaky roof, old carpeting, energy conservation, etc.).  An amicable negotiating session was held between both boards.  The result:  AFGS purchased the building for $100,000 cash. Coincidentally, the closing took place Thanksgiving week in 2007.

AFGS now had a permanent home, but as we expected the work was just beginning.  We grew from a 3,000-square foot room in the lower level to 19,000 square feet on three levels.

The Society’s building fund committee became the building maintenance committee.  Since the Society acquired the building in 2007, several foundation and legislative grants and in-kind donations have enabled the Society to accomplish the following:

  • Replace the roof on two sections of the building;
  • Replace old, drafty windows in the lower level of the building;
  • Install a new heating system replacing a steam heat system with hot water, converted from oil to natural gas heat. The old heating system was burning 18 gallons of oil an hour;
  • Repaired masonry on the outside of the building (bricks were falling off the exterior walls);
  • Renovated the lower level restrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  • Upgraded and expanded the fire and security alarm systems throughout the building;
  • New carpeting throughout the building;
  • Renovated the main library room with new research tables and chairs, added a modern reception area, and purchased new lockers for researchers to secure briefcases and other items;
  • Installed energy conserving, brighter LED lighting throughout the building;
  • Converted the former church dining room to a new library wing;
  • Converted the former church kitchen to a lunchroom;
  • Converted the pastor’s former office to a special collections room;
  • Converted the former church meeting room to an education center where workshops and lectures are held and video recorded;
  • Former Sunday School room is now the board of directors meeting room;
  • Former church sanctuary is now used as a 200-seat auditorium.

Our building is nearly 100 years old so there will always be a little TLC needed.

Last year we were approached by a gentleman who had an extensive collection of military memorabilia and was looking for space to establish a veteran’s museum. The Society was not using the upper level of the building so the AFGS board decided to let him use it.  The deal was he would paint the walls and renovate a room that had not been used in many years.

The Museum opened last Veteran’s Day and contains memorabilia from the Revolutionary War through Afghanistan.  The museum draws much traffic into the building and has also increased visitors to the AFGS library.

However, the museum opening has raised another project we had been contemplating to the top of the list.  We have begun seeking funds to install an elevator in our building.  Not a small task.  We’ve had engineering studies done and a general contractor has estimated the project cost at just over $200,000.

In December 2016, AFGS was awarded a matching grant from the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission for the installation of an elevator in our building, The Society must raise a $150,000 match. If you’d like to help us meet our goal, please visit the Elevator Fund page.

The board of directors is committed to strategically planning the future.  More and more genealogical research sites are popping up on the Internet.  AFGS will keep working to remain a leader in French Canadian genealogical and historical research.