LEWISTON – Once doomed for destruction, Little Canada’s landmark former church reached the halfway mark Tuesday in its $4.2 million renovation.

The 97-year-old building, now the Franco-American Heritage Center at St. Mary’s, was awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of $367,500.

The award pushed fund-raising for the center past $2.2 million. The grant will help the center continue repairs on the granite exterior and renovations of the former nave, now a performing arts center.

It’s a long way for the grand structure, once deemed too costly to save.

In 2000, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland went so far as to collect demolition bids. Instead, church leaders sold it to local preservationists.

“We got it for $1, which I don’t think we paid, actually,” joked Rita Dube, the center’s executive director.

Since then, more than 1,000 donors have made contributions. The project also received $1 million from a state bond.

Tuesday’s ceremony included remarks by Michael Aube, the USDA’s state director for rural development, and Peter Thomas, associate administrator for USDA’s rural development office in Washington.

The Lewiston center was among scores of institutions that were competing for grant money nationwide.

Not only was it picked, Thomas said. The award amount was far higher than the average grant of less than $100,000.

The project had been given the “highest recommendation” of Aube’s Bangor office. The center’s location, within a federally defined enterprise community, made it eligible for money that would typically be unavailable for such a project.

Meanwhile, people in Aube’s office became convinced that the center’s impact would reach far beyond the poor Little Canada neighborhood.

Eventually, it would reach Francos throughout Maine, he said.

Center officials plan to make it a hub of cultural learning, with a museum and learning center in its basement. They hope the performance space upstairs will become a place for people of several cultures to celebrate the arts.

Work throughout the building is ongoing. The first $2 million has paid for more than $1.3 million in masonry work alone. There’s a new elevator and lobby, handicapped ramps, an expanded stage and new seats upstairs. But there’s much more to do.

Plans call for more seats, 470 in all, to be arranged on stadium-style platforms. There is also more masonry to complete.

The money will likely push forward the renovation by six months to a year, Dube said.

“This certainly saves me a lot of door-knocking,” she said.


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