In the face of Franco-American cultural assimilation and ethnic discrimination during the 20th century, JoAnne De Blois Lapointe and others rallied to build cultural awareness in Lewiston-Auburn.  

Lapointe, 77, resides in Old Orchard Beach but for 30 year she lived and worked in Lewiston-Auburn.  She is among the Franco-American cultural pioneers of the 1970’s. They included educators and writers who saw the need to protect the Franco-American culture and the French language from assimilation.  During the 1970’s Franco-Americans were worried about cultural preservation.  Meanwhile, their French speaking culture and the history they inherited from ancestors who pre-dated the English settlers were being absorbed into America’s mainstream.  “Survivance” was a cultural wake-up call to protect Franco-American culture from extinction.  LaPointe was among those who responded to this call.

LaPointe’s amazing institutional memory recalls the challenges she and others faced to protect Lewiston-Auburn’s Franco-American culture. “When we began our work, some people thought the Franco-Americans had no culture,” she says.  In fact, she and others proved them wrong.  Her memories of how they did it is packed with details about people, places and events that eventually led to Franco-American pride for protecting the culture.

After meeting Lapointe recently, I came to realize how her efforts might be taken for granted today, when Franco-Americans are finally expressing pride in their heritage through books, cultural events, music, oral histories and genealogy.

Lapointe is a native of Winthrop.  She taught history at St. Dominic Regional High School when it was located in Lewiston. Additionally, she was the first woman dean of students at Central Maine Vocational Technical College and published a newspaper column about Franco-Americans.   In 1976, she was recognized as the Woman of the Year by the Lewiston-Auburn Business Woman’s Association.

A “kaleidoscope of events” happened, she said, beginning in 1970 which eventually brought Franco-Americans together.  St. Dominic Regional High School (St. Dom’s) started an academic collaboration project with St. Francis College in Biddeford (now the University of New England). A French humanities course was jointly created where students were awarded academic credits.  LaPointe taught the Franco-American and French-Canadian history while Sister Solange Bernier, an Ursuline religious and cultural icon at St. Dom’s, taught the French language courses.

“This course was interesting because we had no established curriculum.  We created our own as we progressed,” she says.  Students were assigned to interview their relatives, Franco-American leaders and people they felt contributed to the French-Canadian presence in Lewiston-Auburn.  “Our students gathered all kinds of memorabilia,” she recalls. “My classroom at St. Dom’s looked like a warehouse full of Franco-American artifacts.  We had to launch an organization,” she says.

On October 13, 1970, Le Centre d’Heritage Franco-American at St. Dom’s was formally launched.  Dr. Paul Fortier of Lewiston was the founding president.  Other officers were Lapointe’s late husband Norman Lapointe and Madeleine Giguere from the University of Southern Maine.  Some familiar names on the list of trustees were local radio hostess Connie Cote, Louis Philippe Gagne, former Mayor, and leader in the French Community in Lewiston, and Auburn and State Senator Georgette Berube of Lewiston.  Gov. Kenneth M. Curtis was an honorary trustee.  “Le Centre d’Heritage was the work of a combination of many who came together at the right time to protect Lewiston-Auburn’s Franco-American culture,” says Lapointe.

The Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine at Lewiston-Auburn College (USM-LA) houses many of the artifacts collected by Le Centre d’Heritage.  Le Centre is open to the public.

Now in her retirement, Lapointe and her husband Collin Johnson travel to France and Quebec because they continue to be strong cultural advocates.