Mustafa Soykurt, French consul general in Boston Submitted photo

LEWISTON — A French diplomat serving as his country’s consul general in Boston weighed in on the controversial decision to drop the Franco-American name from the center in the former St. Mary’s Church and rebrand it as Riverfront Performing Arts and Events.

In diplomatic language, Mustafa Soykurt, the consul general, had a simple message for the nonprofit’s board of directors: Non!

In a letter this month to the panel, Soykurt said the French consulate in Boston “has been a strong and long supporter of the Franco-American Center in Lewiston.”

“From our perspective, this name change, which is not consensual inside the board of directors, hardly reflects the mission of the center,” he wrote, and “does not illustrate the quality, the strength and the history of relations between France and America in Maine.”

Opponents of the name change, including prominent residents with French ancestry, seized on the letter to aid their push to convince the 23-year-old nonprofit to reverse its name change decision.

Unlike Soykurt, they weren’t always diplomatic in their language.

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Calling the Riverfront moniker “an insult” to the Franco community, Rita Dube, who helped raise the money for the center’s creation, said many of its past presidents and founding members have come out for keeping the old name in place.

“Why erase the very name that belongs to all these Mainers now and for generations to come?” she asked.

The Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston has been rebranded as Riverfront Performing Arts & Events, as seen on its sign Jan. 10. The announcement has drawn mixed reactions. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Lionel Guay Jr., a former mayor of Lewiston and a founder of the center, said Monday that “changing the name of the Franco-American Heritage Center is just a pure and simple act of bastardizing” Franco-American culture.

“You have hundreds of establishments all over Maine by the name of Riverfront,” he said. “How many do you have by the name of The Franco-American Heritage Center? You do not see the Irish Heritage Center wanting to change its name.”

Guay said the move by the center’s board shows disrespect and discrimination.

Another former mayor, Larry Gilbert, said he is “incensed and vehemently opposed to the change of name with anything that has the name Riverfront.”

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“I am a proud Franco-American,” he said. “If we can’t celebrate and hold our culture, what more do we have to pass on to future generations. The change to Riverfront is utterly ridiculous. We will fight this to our dying breath.”

The board made the name change because it saw the move as a “fresh, new look” that also honors the riverfront, its president, Elaine Roop, said in January.

“Nothing has changed about being the stewards for our French-Canadian heritage and culture,” she said at the time. “The only change has been a change of name to make it far easier for people to know that all are welcome. It’s that simple.”

In a nod to the past, its new logo added a tagline that says it was “founded by Franco Americans.

In his letter to Roop and the board, Soykurt said that “changing the name of the Franco American Center in Lewiston is not just a question of branding.”

“It has an impact on our common heritage and sends a message about what we want to build,” he said.

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The consul general asked the board to reconsider its decision “since we are all involved in a common cause.”

Dube said the consulate’s opposition to the new name is “a very big deal.”

“The relations between the Franco American Heritage Center and France have always been very important to the French heritage of so many Mainers,” she said. “The language, the culture, the music, the food, the actual connection and similarities between the two for years have been a source of support for the Franco Center.”

Soykurt said the relationship between France and the region is special.

“It is based on our common use of the French language,” he said. “But more importantly, it is based on a common heritage that goes back centuries ago when French settlers came to Canada and a part of them joined Maine.”

Juliana L’Heureux, board chairwoman of the Franco American Collection at the University of Southern Maine, sent a memo to the center’s decision-makers that said the name change “marginalizes the history about the Franco-Americans who donated their meager resources towards building the original and beautiful” church.

“An unpopular name change has the appearance of undermining the intentions of the founders” who created the center as a community resources “where Franco-Americans will take pride in having created this monument and tribute to the culture’s long heritage.”

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