AUGUSTA – Lewiston Mayor Lionel C. Guay Jr., 63, sat in the State House’s Senate chamber Wednesday, a bit amazed.

Along with Cyril and Agnes Beaulieu of Madawaska, Guay had just been honored by House and Senate members for being inducted in the Franco-American Hall of Fame, on Franco-American Day at the State House.

“This happens to just a few people a year,” Guay said. “Being Franco and being proud of being a Franco, this is probably the ultimate. I’ve never thought in my whole life I’d be inducted into any hall of fame.”

While hearing his praises for how he’s promoted his culture, Guay thought of his parents, the late Anna and Lionel Sr., whose parents left Canada and settled in Lewiston. At a time when some were ashamed to be and speak French, his parents taught their sons not only to speak French, but to be proud Francos.

“I wish they could be here,” Guay said. “It would be hard for them to believe that this could ever happen.”

As evidenced by the day, in the past 20 years there’s been a resurgence of Franco pride, Guay said. “For so many years we were treated as second-class citizens, known as uneducated mill workers. All of that has changed. You see this here today.”

One reason Guay was inducted in the hall of fame is his work on Lewiston’s Festival de Joie, a festival he has chaired for the past 12 years.

Guay credited the popular festival with helping to keep the culture alive. Each summer more than 200 volunteers turn out, and hundreds more come to enjoy French food, dance, and speak or listen to French language and song.

“And it’s not just French anymore,” he said, adding that other ethnic cultures are now celebrated.

Another culture boost is Lewiston’s 4-year-old Franco American Heritage Center in the former St. Mary’s Church. A home for Francos, the center offers concerts, French classes and French films. Its board has said that 25 percent of all activities must be in French, Guay said. Other communities exploring opening similar centers now visit Lewiston, he said.

And next month, Saints Peter and Paul Church – where Masses are still said in French every Saturday – will officially become a basilica, the only one in Maine. Bishop Richard Malone of Maine’s Roman Catholic diocese will visit on May 22 to celebrate the church’s elevated status. Having the church become a basilica is another plus for area Francos, Guay said. “That’s something the Francos can be proud of because it is a French church. … It was founded as a French church.”

At Wednesday’s festivities, there were high school students in the House and Senate who study French and wore “Je Parle Francais” pins. “I’m real proud of that,” Guay said. “That will keep the French language alive.”

Also, French singer Melanie Saucier, 9, of Fort Kent, performed and Gov. John Baldacci offered a speech in the Hall of Flags, mentioning that one-third of Maine’s population is Franco. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara also spoke, completely in French, praising diversity and Francos’ contributions to Maine.

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