When we were kids and first started learning about American history, we learned that one of the things that makes America great is that we are a “melting pot.” Throughout our history, we—in the words written at the base of the Statue of Liberty—have welcomed those “yearning to breathe free,” from literally every other country on earth. Here in Lewiston-Auburn, we especially are aware of and value the great contributions of French Canadians to our area. According to the Franco-American collection at The University of Southern Maine, Lewiston’s population is 60 percent of French Canadian ancestry, and Auburn’s is 30 percent. Today about 80 percent of Maine’s Franco-American population lives within a 50-mile radius of Lewiston-Auburn.
French-Canadians Arrive in Lewiston-Auburn
The first French-speaking Canadian migrants came to Lewiston-Auburn in the 1860s to work in the textile mills and shoe shops. Most arrived at the Grand Trunk Railroad Depot on Lincoln Street in Lewiston—a small building later home to a restaurant—and then settled in an area known to this day as “Little Canada.” In 1907, construction of St. Mary’s Church began in the Little Canada neighborhood. The parish served its new residents and became an important focal point for Lewiston-Auburn culture.
From St. Mary’s to Today’s Franco Center
In 1930, a Boston newspaper published a photo of St. Mary’s and judged it to be the most beautiful church in New England. From its construction until the year 2000, an estimated three-quarters of Franco-Americans in the Lewiston-Auburn area were baptized or married in the church. But with the turn-of-the-century decline of the industries that had encouraged families to populate the neighborhood, the church began to suffer financially. The Catholic Diocese of Portland announced it would be closing St. Mary’s as of July 1, 2000. Led by former Lewiston Mayor Lionel Guay, the community banded together and formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation that ultimately turned what had been St. Mary’s into what is today The Franco-American Heritage Center (commonly called The Franco Center). By offering the local Lewiston-Auburn community an outstanding performing arts and cultural facility, the Franco Center meets its mission to “celebrate Franco-American heritage and culture and the cultures of others from places around the world.”
French Canadians’ Cultural Contributions
From their savory Tourtière Pie ( a seasoned meat pie baked in a traditional piecrust) … to their other culinary delights … to the incredible work ethic they brought to Maine’s mills, logging operations, and other businesses starting around the time of the Civil War … to the deep religious faith and close-kit fabric of their families and community … French-Canadians have left an indelible stamp on our area through their contributions to local history, government, religion, language, education, industry, sports and the arts.
To take a deeper, more detailed dive into the many cultural contributions of Franco-Americans, we invite you to visit The Franco American Collection of the University of Southern Maine here.