Franco center unveils cabaret space


LEWISTON — The ground-floor hall of the Franco-American Heritage Center at the former St. Mary’s Church — where generations attended bean suppers and craft fairs — is completing a $500,000, floor-to-ceiling renovation.

“We’ve become a little classier,” said Rita Dube, the center’s executive director.

The room sports a new blue-gray color scheme and a dance floor. The ornate-but-worn tin ceiling is gone. Aluminum chairs and long, folding tables have been replaced with soft seats and round cabaret tables.

And the view — from the newly expanded stage in the front to the custom-built bar in the rear — is no longer obstructed with columns. Ten columns that supported much of the stone structure’s weight have been replaced with steel beams.

“We’re not just a place for old folks,” Dube said, hopeful that the renovated space no longer looks like an outdated church hall.

“We want the same ‘wow’ down here,” she said.

The renovation has been planned for more than a decade, ever since Dube and friends created the nonprofit Franco center as a way to preserve the grand former church in Lewiston’s Little Canada neighborhood. Millions of dollars have been spent to prevent the stone exterior from crumbling. More than $1 million more was spent to renovate the cavernous nave upstairs, transforming it into a plush performance hall.

But the downstairs has gone largely untouched. The floors didn’t match.

“We now complement the upstairs,” Dube said.

The renovation’s $500,000 came from a USDA grant, but it wasn’t enough to do everything thing Dube wanted. The center had planned to install a sliding petition in the room, to capitalize on its possible use for small gatherings or conferences. New windows and a planned green room for performers will wait.

“We only do what we can pay for,” Dube said.

Plans were changed when Dube learned that the renovation had to come with an expanded sprinkler system at a cost of more than $40,000. However, the finished changes create a space that Dube believes will make the center a popular spot for weddings and receptions.

“Already, we’re seeing an increase in bookings,” she said. And the former grand opening is still a couple of weeks away.

On June 1, the Celtic Tuesdays series of concerts will be relocated to the first floor area for Ian Sherwood and Friends. For that grand opening week, 1980s party band The Awesome will inaugurate the dance floor on June 4. The next night, the Mike Willette Swing Band is scheduled to play a show.

“We want this to be a place where people can come and dance and have a few drinks,” Dube said.

The new bar will also open one hour before every performance in the upstairs hall, combining the old and the new. Though the center has only been able to serve alcohol for one year, the bar was made from furniture left behind by the church.

Specifically, it used materials from a partition between the first row of pews and the front of the nave.

“There have been a lot of prayers said on that bar,” Dube said.

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