In the early days of the pandemic, Julia Rhinelander spent time listening to Franco-American oral histories, and, every time, she could hear a world of emotion.

She could hear the tenderness in people’s voices when they talked about their families and what it was like growing up Franco in Lewiston. She could hear the ease in people’s voices as they broke into song, and thought about how music was crucial to preserving tradition and language. 

“Our world moves so fast these days, and sitting down to listen to someone tell the story of their life is a powerful way to slow down and be present,” Rhinelander said. “Before we know it, our parents and grandparents will be gone, and who will be able to tell their stories if we don’t listen? I think it’s a lesson that we all need to learn, no matter what our heritage is.”

It was this inspiration — this desire to preserve Franco-American stories — that led to the creation of the podcast, Franco-American Pathways (Chemins Franco-Américains).

Anna Faherty, left, Maureen Perry, center, and Julia Rhinelander chat recently about their podcast, Franco-American Pathways, at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The podcast is presented by the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. The idea was born after a series of conversations between Rhinelander and Anna Faherty, two USM workers and longtime podcast fans. Fellow USM employee Maureen Perry, who works with Faherty at Lewiston-Auburn College, was later added to the team.

“When we started working remotely, I was tasked with transcribing and translating oral histories so we could add them to our digital repository. I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, these are so cool.’ There are some really incredible stories there,” said Rhinelander, a library specialist in Access Services at USM in Portland.

The podcast, which posts a new episode on the last Thursday of every month, is dedicated to celebrating Franco-American history and culture in Maine. All three podcast hosts work from written and audiovisual documents housed at the Franco-American Collection.  

“We want to amplify Franco and Francophone voices in Maine and make sure that our collection evolves with the community that it represents,” Rhinelander said. The collection is open to the public and was created to allow the public to explore Franco-American culture, history and identity.

They posted their pilot episode on Spotify on May 27. It highlights the work being done at collections such as the one at USM to preserve and protect oral histories and artifacts that document that Franco experience. 

In that episode, they invited two guests to speak: Dr. Mary Rice-DeFosse, a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Bates College and co-author of the book “The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn,” and Doris Bonneau, the  treasurer for the board of directors for the Franco-American collection, which serves to represent the interests of USM and the Franco-American community. 

The three women have many ideas for future episodes.

Perry said they are planning to discuss subjects, including Acadian music and the experiences of Franco-American veterans. She is responsible for a section of the podcast called La Collection Parle (The Collection Speaks), where she selects written documents from the collection that fall into the month’s theme and reads them aloud. 

Faherty said they want to do a feature on snowshoeing parades and bands, and French newspapers like Le Messager and Le Défenseur that were once published in Lewiston. She is in charge of the Archivist’s Corner, the segment of their show where they highlight artifacts in the collection. 

The collection’s diversity has given the three room for creativity and inspiration. 

“It feels like there are infinite possibilities,” Rhinelander said. “Since the launch of the show, we’ve had a flood of interest from scholars and from folks in the community who want to sit for oral history interviews. It really feels like there’s excitement and momentum and a very deep creative well to draw from.”

The next episode features one of Rhinelander’s favorite oral histories. It is about two sisters, Hélène Sylvain and Irène Mercier, talking about their lives growing up in Lewiston.

“There are times when I’m doubled over laughing, they’re so funny together; you can hear their closeness in the recording,” Rhinelander said. “There’s one particular point when one of the sisters is describing the feeling of fresh fallen snow crunching beneath her feet on the way to church that was so moving and so transportive. I think any kid who grew up in Maine knows that feeling and that sound.”

Faherty added that she would love to feature a locally published magazine called Allure, which was published in the 1940s and featured local people’s photos and biographies, intending to be a way to introduce people from Lewiston to their neighbors.

According to Faherty, the hope is that the podcast will reach “all kinds of people” in the community: people who identify as Franco-American or French-Canadian who might want to be interviewed; non-Franco-Americans in the community who are interested in this history or learning more about aspects of Franco-American culture; and students, especially those on the Portland and Gorham campuses at the University of Southern Maine.

“One of the things that I am trying to do is get students to come to the collection and use our archival materials and tell their friends that this cool resource exists,” Faherty said. 

To begin promoting the collection to students, they posted a photo of a stuffed sheep on social media. This used to be the mascot for the yearly Saint Jean Baptiste Day parade in Lewiston. For over a century, this was one of the biggest festivals in Lewiston-Auburn. 

The women are beginning to make progress on social media and on their podcast. They have 73 follows on Facebook. 

“Based on the feedback I’ve been getting, many of the listeners have been in the Franco community and the academic community, and that includes the area where those groups overlap. According to Anchor, each of our 255 listens so far are mostly from the United States, with a few outliers in Canada and Europe,” Rhinelander said. Anchor is a free platform that allows users to make podcasts and see how many listeners an episode gets. 

Perry, the research and instruction librarian for USM who works closely with the collection, emphasized the perfect timing behind the podcast’s development.

“It was one of those things. The stars aligned. Figuring out where our collection could benefit from a podcast, what in our collection we could showcase in a podcast, and our interest in podcasting . . . it all aligned,” Perry said. 

She added, “Diverse stories matter, and if people have material that they want to donate to the collection or an oral history that they would want to share, we hope they’ll consider us, and for the researchers out there to take a look at our materials online and contact us to do research in our collection. We want people to keep listening, and spread the word.”

Follow the Franco-American Pathways podcast on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify.


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