The Frenchtown Civic Organization was established in 1958 by a group of leaders of Frenchtown, and the mission of this non-profit organization has evolved over the years. From advocates on matters of civic and community interests and concerns to the standard bearer of French culture that is today represented as the French Heritage Museum, a precious part of French culture and history on St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands is intricately woven into the confines of this small yellow brick building right in the heart of Frenchtown.
The building was constructed in 1944 as a fire station for the village but was later re-purposed as the Olive & Bernier Health Clinic. Mrs. Florina Olive, RN and Ms. Mercelita Bernier, Public Health Nurse, provided much needed health care to the residents of Frenchtown in the 1940’s and early 1950’s, and the building was appropriately named in their honor. The building subsequently served as kindergarten of the village taught by Altergracia Wenner, a noble educator and community advocate. Both hurricanes Marilyn and Hugo demolished the roof of the building, but nothing could dampen the will and determination of the Frenchtown Civic Organization and its members to restore the building to its former historic and architectural design.
Excerpts from an article written by Anne-Marie Danet and published in the Virgin Islands Daily News on August 6, 1993, and can be found at the National Museum of St. Kitts in Bassetere, St. Kitts & Nevis.
“In 1625, a young nobleman from Normandy, France became a privateer hoping to regain some of the family's lost wealth. Pierre Belain Sieur d'Esnambuc sailed the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea until he arrived at St. Kitts, then known as St. Christopher.
Sieur d'Esnambuc liked what he found and in 1626, he sailed back to France for supplies and to implore the Cardinal Richelieu to petition the Pope to grant France the right to colonize islands in the Antilles. In 1627, with three ships, supplies and about 500 recruits, d'Esnambuc left France and sailed back to St. Kitts. They were fishermen, dock laborers and workers in agriculture from Normandy and Brittany, but half perished on the voyage.
In 1629, the Spanish attacked St. Kitts and demanded that both the French and the English leave so d’Esnambuc took his colonists to the islands of Anguilla, Saint-Barthelemy and to St. Martin. Later that same year, the Spanish left St. Kitts and d’Esnambuc returned to St. Kitts. Thus, in 1629 there were French settlers on Saint-Barthelemy even though it was a short time.
In 1635, d’Esnambuc was appointed Governor and Charles de L’Olive his Lieutenant. De L’Olive soon went to Guadeloupe with 600 persons to set up a colony. After d”Esambuc died in 1637 , Sieur DePoincy was named general captain of St. Kitts, then known to the French as Saint-Christophe.
In 1648, DePoincy sent 50 persons to again settle on Saint-Bathelemy but in 1656, the Carib Indians massacred most of them. The French did not return to Saint-Barthelemy until 1659. In 1784, Louis XVI, King of France, made a deal with King Gustav III of Sweden and Saint Barthelemy was traded in exchange for the use of certain warehouses in Goteborg, Sweden. Under Sweden, the island prospered and the settlers had a better life. This did not last, for when St. Thomas was declared a free port, traders preferred to do their business there.
Meanwhile, disastrous hurricanes and devastating droughts (in the mid to late 1800’s) had just about done away with the livelihood of the settlers of Saint-Barthelemy, and they started moving away to other islands. Many of the migrants came to St. Thomas. The fishermen went to settle in Carenage, which later became known as Frenchtown. Those who were farmers went to live on the North Side of St. Thomas where soil was fertile and land to farm was available. Each family built a little cabin on land leased from the land owners. In Carenage, the settlers built little fishing boats and canoes and they knitted nets. They also made fish traps and they worked hard at their trade. The women were weavers of straw and made hats for themselves and for the men. While the land was leased, the settlers in Frenchtown owned their humble little cabins, which they had built with their own hands.
We learned our lessons well and now among our people are senators, doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, teachers, artists, engineers and professors at colleges and universities. There are nurses, nuns and priests.
We are proud of our French heritage and of our ancestors who left it for us along with their courage and their will to always strive for a better life.”