LEWISTON — Just before 7 p.m. Saturday the parking lot at the Franco-American Heritage Center was filling up.
They came to celebrate former director Rita Dube, who helped turn a Little Canada church set to be torn down into a state-of-the-art performance and cultural center.
They came to say "merci."
After 12 years as executive director, working two years without pay, Dube, 70, retired last month.
Her contributions were “innumerable,” said the center's board chairman, Ray Lagueux. He spoke above the hum of the crowd during the social hour as the aroma of the soon-to-be served dinner hung in the air.
Born and raised in Lewiston, Dube worked for a number of causes for years, “but key here was her passion and love of St. Mary's, the parish, the church, the building. Not losing it and establishing a foundation for it to be here years to come,” Lagueux said.
On Jan. 24 Dube will be honored with a community service leadership award during the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce annual meeting.
What Dube has achieved “is remarkable,” chamber President Chip Morrison said Saturday in a phone interview.
“There's few people I've met in my life who are so driven to accomplish something, so willing to put so much of themselves (into something) as what Rita did with the Franco Center,” he said. Her work has “given us that first-class performance venue we didn't have before. The symphony came in and were awed.”
Converting a church to a cultural center wasn't easy, Lagueux said. Many groups have come to Lewiston to see it and do the same in their communities. “I don't know of many that have succeeded as well as the Franco-American Center in Lewiston.”
The church basement has become a classic banquet center, complete with chandeliers, bars with hanging wine glasses, white-covered tables and serving bars.
The top floor has been turned from a church to a performance center with acoustics approved by top performers. Throughout the center are reminders of Lewiston's roots, the French language, photographs and murals of immigrants coming by train or working in the mills.
The center not only promotes the arts, it keeps the Franco culture alive, Lagueux said.
The first Friday of each month is “French Friday,” known as "La Rencontre" (the gathering). The luncheon attracts a packed house and everyone speaks French.
“There's a fine of 25 cents a word for every English word said,” Lagueux said, adding that the maximum fine is $1. The center also offers French-language classes and has an outreach program in which volunteers teach French to elementary students in after-school programs.
As she hugged person after person Saturday night, Dube said the banquet was more than she deserved. “I feel very humbled,” she said, adding that it took a team “to make this place happen. But I am honored and proud.”
In 2000, she agreed to become executive director. St. Mary's Church was to be torn down, “this beautiful building,” Dube said. “This is the heart of Little Canada.” Allowing that “would be an insult to the Francos who gave their blood, sweat and tears to build this place.”
The Catholic diocese agreed to sell the building for $1 to allow the church to be transformed into a cultural center in honor of Franco-Americans, Dube said. Today, the center “is a source of pride to the Franco-Americans throughout the state.”
Speaking in French, Lagueux said, “Le centre d'heritage ne sera qu'un reve sans Rita Dube.”
He translated: “The heritage center would only be a dream without Rita Dube.”