Why would a Catholic couple buried in the same cemetery be in different plots far from one another? Was one plot filled to capacity? Was one partner widowed, remarried, then buried with the second spouse? Not in the case of Edward (1892-1971) and Alfreda (Martin) Bernier (1903-1981).
After promising lifelong love and obedience to her husband at their 1921 June wedding, the bride moved a mere two blocks from her mother’s home to the Berniers’ apartment building on Mason Street.
Though there was a decade difference in their ages, the couple had much in common. Both were first generation Americans, born and raised in Brunswick by French Canadian parents. Like most of their mutual friends and neighbors, neither studied beyond fourth or fifth grade at St. Jean le Baptiste’s parochial school. Having lived in the same neighborhood, they shared friends and acquaintances.
On the surface, life remained much the same as before the wedding. Teenaged Alfreda continued to work at Cabot mill. Edward was a carpenter at the time, but he soon switched to painting houses with his younger brother, Adelard. Both Alfreda and Edward’s family and friends were still nearby for company and moral support. Each continued their familiar “leisure-time” activities: she sewed and crocheted; he played clarinet in the St. John’s Band.
What did change was their income needs. Nine months after the wedding their first child, Marie Gertrude Priscilla, was born. Suddenly they were a family of three with another mouth to feed, another body to clothe.
Then every year or so for the next eighteen years, Alfreda was forced to “loaf” from her mill job for two or three days give birth. The couple’s eleventh and final child, Rhea, was born in 1939.
Alfreda, like her mother Anastasie, loved her babies. (See Anastasie, épouse de feu Eustache Martin. ) And like her father Eustache she was clever and industrious. (See Le Cultiveur.) She sewed and crocheted clothes for the family and textiles for their home, and worked equally hard at the mill. A proud woman, she was sometimes stung by criticism. (See Bright and Shiny.) Fiercely independent, she balked at being ordered by the “bosses” at the mill, but was forced to swallow her pride to keep her job.
And she needed her job. With eleven children to feed and a husband who was often out of work, Alfreda’s income was critical to the family’s financial health. By 1940 Edward, unable to find painting work, hired out as a manual laborer on a road project, working only thirty hours a week. Clearly, Alfreda was the family breadwinner.
It may have been about this time that Alfreda found herself desperate to provide for her family. Girded in her customary corset, freshly pressed dress, and Sunday hat, she walked to the local Red Cross office on Pleasant Street to ask for aid. The director told her that there would be no help for Alfreda if she kept having children.
She returned home hurt and angry.
But not defeated.
Though she resented her treatment by the local Red Cross representative, Alfreda knew she couldn’t afford another child, either financially or physically. Financially, her husband drained more income than he contributed – when he wasn’t working, he drank and that cost money. Physically, Alfreda had operated spinning and weaving machinery for two decades, which took a toll on her knees. Her pregnancies had also stressed her body. As a Catholic woman without access to dependable birth control or the right to refuse her husband’s overtures, there was only one way she could protect herself and her family. And that was contrary to Catholic doctrine.
So, in December 1941, Alfreda bought a brand new cape at 15 Coffin Street just past Bowdoin College.
A year later, Alfreda successfully sued her husband for divorce and full custody of their eleven minor children on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment. The divorce decree doesn’t cite witness testimony as to the actual cruelty and abuse, but family conversations hinted that Edward’s drinking was a cause.
After the divorce both Alfreda and Edward remained in Brunswick and neither remarried. The ex-spouses kept tabs on each other through their children and grandchildren, always wishing the other well.
When Edward died in 1971 he was buried in St. John the Baptist Cemetery alongside his father and mother, Zepherin and Aglée (Guimond) Bernier.
Ten years later, though the Bernier plot wasn’t full, and Alfreda had no second husband to be near, her family her buried in the same cemetery, well out of sight of Edward’s grave. Though the Catholic Church didn’t recognize her divorce, Alfreda’s family did.
- Advertisement for 15 Coffin Street, Brunswick Record, November 27, 1941, Photos from the Brunswick newspapers from 1902 to 1960, rephotographed by Richard Snow, http://www.curtislibrary.com/brunswick-history/, accessed May 24, 2016.
- Ancestry.com: Various including City Directories, Family Trees, United States Federal and State Censuses, Vital Records (Birth, Death, and Marriages).
- Bernier family photos courtesy Susanne (Bernier) Theberge.
- Alfreda (Martin) Bernier. Undated conversations/oral interviews with Barbara A. (Bernier) Desmarais.
- Alfreda (Martin) Bernier divorce decree, Office of Data, Research, and Vital Statistics, 220 Capitol St., Augusta, Maine.
- Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, 25 Pearl St., Portland, Maine and <https://me.uslandrecords.com/ME/Cumberland/D/Default.aspx>