The mission of the Dolard & Priscilla Gendron Franco Center is to celebrate and preserve Franco-American heritage while welcoming the cultures of our neighbors.
We celebrate Franco culture and other cultures by hosting dozens of performances every year ranging from classical music to comedy to modern dance and much more. We preserve Franco heritage by teaching French classes to children (both within the Franco Center and in local schools) and adults alike, by hosting a monthly French language luncheon, by giving tours to students and tourists of our museum of photos and artifacts depicting Franco immigrant culture, by lending out books from our library of French publications, and through our celebration of “La Semaine de la Francophonie” (Francophone Week) every March.
In the 1860s, the first French-speaking Canadian migrants came to Lewiston-Auburn to work in the textile mills & shoe shops. Most arrived at the Grand Trunk Railroad Depot (a small building now home to a restaurant) on Lincoln Street in Lewiston and settled in an area known to this day as “Little Canada.” In 1907, construction of St. Mary’s Church began in the Little Canada neighborhood and was completed in 1927. The parish served its new residents and became an important focal point for the population. Today about 80% of Maine’s Franco population lives within a 50-mile radius of Lewiston-Auburn.
St. Mary’s Church was the third oldest Catholic Church in Lewiston and it hosted its first mass on Christmas Day in 1927. In 1930, a Boston newspaper published a photo of St. Mary’s and judged it to be the most beautiful Church in New England. Until the day it closed in the year 2000, the church continued to hold masses in both English and French. An estimated three-quarters of Franco-Americans of this area has been baptized or married in the church, or attended school at L’École St. Marie just down the street.
At one time, St. Mary’s Parish was a thriving and well-attended church. However, with the decline of the industries that encouraged families to populate the neighborhood, the church began to suffer financially. The Catholic Diocese of Portland announced that it would be closing St. Mary’s as of July 1, 2000. Many people in the community, led by former Lewiston mayor Lionel Guay, wanted to preserve this symbol of local Franco-American culture. They formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation and bought the church from the diocese for one dollar, which in turn saved the diocese nearly a quarter-million dollars in demolition costs. After closing St. Mary’s Church, the church was deconsecrated and the Franco-American Heritage Center was established as a performing arts and cultural facility.