Despite their minority status, the ‘newcomers’ (in 1860) ultimately had a profound and lasting impact on L-A, and it can be seen on almost every corner.

They started arriving in the 1860s, when Lewiston’s textile mills were churning out fabric at breakneck pace. LeBlancs and LePages, Gilberts and Jalberts, Michauds and Mathieus left their homes and crossed the border, looking for work.

A period of bad harvests in Eastern Canada left many Quebecois in the mid-19th century struggling with farm debts. Many came to Maine thinking the move was temporary, just hoping to make enough money to cover mortgages back home.

At that same time, the Bates Mill was in need of cheap labor, and a lot of it.

Boston businessman Benjamin Bates had founded the mill in 1850, a decade before the first French-speaking immigrants began to arrive. Thanks in part to a fortuitous purchase — Bates bought a large amount of cotton right before the Civil War broke out, ensuring him of a good supply — the mill was highly prosperous at a time when mills elsewhere were struggling to make a profit.

To keep up with demand, the mill began to actively recruit French Canadians.

“They were known as really hard workers, and they were known as workers who wouldn’t cause problems. The Catholic Church was not in favor of unions, so they tended not to unionize,” says Mary Rice-DeFosse, professor of French and Francophone Studies at Bates College and co-author of the new book “The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn.”

Rice-DeFosse’s primary area of interest is 19th century French literature, but she developed a fascination with the area’s Franco population when she began teaching at Bates in the mid-’80s.

“I’m really impressed by the fact that Franco-Americans in Lewiston-Auburn, and around Maine, were able to retain their language, culture and faith across generations,” says Rice-DeFosse.

Typically, she says, immigrant communities are assimilated into the dominant culture over three generations, while Lewiston-Auburn’s Franco population is still going strong more than 150 years after its ancestors began arriving here.

While many younger Franco-Americans today no longer speak French, they still retain other aspects of their cultural heritage, including cuisine, religious and holiday traditions, and social cohesion within the community.

James Myall, the book’s other co-author and former coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, attributes this cultural longevity to a number of factors, including the sheer numbers who settled in the area, the relative proximity to Canada — allowing many to travel freely back to their homeland — and one other factor peculiar to them:

“Even in Quebec, they were already operating as a minority community, so they had already developed traditions of cultural survival and resisting assimilation,” says Myall.

On top of that, says Rice-DeFosse, the community insulated itself by creating what she calls “a city within a city.”

“Franco-Americans in Lewiston-Auburn really created their own French-speaking universe,” she says.

Maine’s Franco population wasted no time in creating their own grocery stores, credit unions, funeral homes, churches, schools, newspapers and social clubs — such as Le Passe-Temps and Le Nationale, which are still with us today — concentrated in Little Canada and New Auburn, situated along the canal and the banks of the Androscoggin, just a short walk from the mills and shoe shops.

Their self-sufficiency made it possible for them to live with minimal contact with their “Yankee” protestant and Irish neighbors.

Many of their businesses, or the structures that housed them, still dot the landscape of the Twin Cities, as do their churches and other cultural reminders.

“It’s amazing how much of the past — the early period of Franco-American migration — is still with us and we don’t realize it or don’t know the full story,” says Rice-DeFosse.

One example is F.X. Marcotte, the family-owned furniture store on Lincoln Street, which has been a local institution for more than 125 years.

“People go by it and have no idea,” says Rice-DeFosse.

Its namesake, Francois Xavier Marcotte, was an influential figure among the early influx of French Canadians into the area. Originally a mill worker, Marcotte became an undertaker and coffin maker before going into the furniture business. With a prime storefront location across Lincoln Street from the Grand Trunk Station, Marcotte helped many new arrivals fresh off the train find apartments and get settled into the area. In return, the new emigres gave Marcotte their business, outfitting their new homes at his store.

Though Marcotte’s community-mindedness may have been beneficial to his entrepreneurial endeavors, his generosity lives on today at Maison Marcotte, the Campus Avenue assisted living facility. Marcotte donated the building with the stipulation that the Sisters of Charity always provide free care to 20 seniors.

While Marcotte ran one of the early funeral businesses in the area, he sold it to partners Regent Fortin and Napoleon Pinette in 1910. Fortin and Pinette went their separate ways in 1922, each opening funeral homes throughout the area that are still with us today.

Having their own mortuary services was important to the new arrivals, and continued to be important over time.

“They trusted their own, and they knew that a Franco undertaker or mortician would know the right prayers to say, what their traditions were, and the right way to treat a body,” says Rice-DeFosse.

“They knew the priests who would say the funeral Mass, and they spoke French. In a time of crisis, it was nice to have their mother tongue.”

Among the first businesses the Francos started were bakeries.

“When people are poor, one of the first things they can buy is a loaf of bread. And French breads at that time had a different flavor and texture than Yankee breads,” said Rice-DeFosse.

Lepage Bakeries, the parent company of Country Kitchen, has been around since 1903. Proprietor Francois-Regis Lepage was also a good friend and business partner of William Mailhot, founder in 1910 of Mailhot Sausage, where the Franco population could enjoy favorite flavors from home, such as boudin (blood sausage), creton (pork spread) and tourtieres (meat pies).

Though not quite as old as Lepage Bakeries or Mailhot Sausage, Labadie’s Bakery is another local Franco institution. Opened in 1925, the business claims to be the birthplace of the whoopie pie, Maine’s official state treat.

Another iconic local business, LeBlanc’s Cleaners, has roots going back to 1909, when proprietor Joseph LeBlanc started the Lewiston Steam Dye House. LeBlanc was the son-in-law of Georges Chignon, widely believed to be Lewiston’s first Franco immigrant.

Most needs that weren’t met by entrepreneurs were taken care of by the church. In Lewiston-Auburn, that meant the Dominican Order, which was responsible for some of the area’s most prominent landmarks.

Shortly after arriving to tend to the spiritual needs of Lewiston and Auburn’s growing immigrant community, the Dominicans set about building an imposing five-story structure at the corner of Lincoln and Chestnut Streets. Completed in 1882, the Dominican Block, once known as “French-Canadian City Hall,” was a commercial storefront, community center, theater, school and worship space in one. The block was completely rehabilitated in the last few years by a private owner, who is now seeking occupants.

The Dominicans were also behind the decision to demolish the overcrowded Saints Peter and Paul Church and replace it with a massive, cathedral-like structure.

The old church came down in 1905, nearly a century before its replacement would be designated a basilica by the Holy See. A new Saints Peter and Paul was completed in 1936. The grand structure was paid for primarily by the hard-earned money of parishioners, some of whom never lived to see its completion.

As beloved a landmark as the basilica is today, its creation was once a source of deep contention both within the local Franco community and the wider diocese.

Le Messenger, the area’s main French newspaper, criticized the Dominicans for demolishing the old church without sufficient input from parishioners.

Meanwhile, in Portland, “The Dominicans’ plans to construct a cathedral-like structure in Lewiston can only have antagonized Bishop (William) O’Connell and his successors,” states the book by Rice-DeFosse and Myall.

“Even today, the church of Sts. Peter and Paul is larger than the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, and the second largest church in all of New England.”

As the name suggests, St. Dominic High School, the area’s first parochial school, founded in 1941, was also connected with the order.

Along with the school, Dominicans also established the area’s first indoor hockey rink in 1950, replacing it with the Central Maine Youth Center in 1958 after the original structure burned down.

At the time of the infamous Sonny Liston/Muhammad Ali fight in 1965, the Youth Center was owned and operated by the Catholic Parish of Peter and Paul, netting the church $2,500 in rental fees for an event that brought in more than $100,000 in profits for promoters.

Today, the site is known by another name. Looking at the slick contemporary exterior of the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, one might never guess its religious roots.

But the Dominicans weren’t the only Franco religious order to leave their mark on the area.

In 1878, a local priest invited the Sisters of Charity of St. Hyacinthe, more commonly known as the Grey Nuns of Montreal, to the area to teach the community’s poor children.

A decade later, the sisters, whose mission in Canada had been focused on health care and social services, purchased a plot of land to build what would become known as St. Mary’s General Hospital, the first hospital in the Twin Cities and the first Catholic hospital in Maine.

“They established this hospital on nickels and dimes, or pennies even, and they served everybody, regardless of background,” says Rice-DeFosse.

Most of the area’s Yankee doctors refused to practice there, founding their own hospital, Central Maine General Hospital — now Central Maine Medical Center — in 1891. Only a handful of doctors, including the Franco-American Dr. Louis Martel — for whom Martel Elementary School was named, and whose lavish home still stands on Bartlett Street — served patients at St. Mary’s.

Over time, though, other doctors had to treat their own patients who were hospitalized at St. Mary’s. The initially skeptical doctors were so impressed by the quality of the facility, some joined a delegation in 1894 to petition the state to grant the hospital a subsidy.

The story of St. Mary’s overcoming early adversity to become an integral part of the community mirrors the story of the Francos themselves.

“They had so much thrown at them and did so well,” says Rice-DeFosse.

“They managed to thrive in the face of adversity, including poverty, poor working conditions, discrimination.”

Rice-DeFosse and Myall view their book not as their own work, but as an offering from the community itself.

“The thing that I like best about this book is that it comes from interactions between myself and my students and the local community members. It’s shared authority in the creation of knowledge,” says Rice-DeFosse.

Myall adds, “We went into the project assuming that we knew a lot of the history and it was just sort of organizing the information and putting pen to paper, but we learned a lot of new things in the process of researching it.”

Even people who are no longer around were able to contribute to the project, thanks to donations of materials to the Franco-American Collection at USM-LAC, some of which have been in the collection since the 1970s.

Myall believes everyone in Lewiston-Auburn and the surrounding area should read the book.

“So much of the city’s history is really woven into the Franco-American community. Everyone needs to know this history,” he says.

“The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn” is available locally at Books-a-Million and online.


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