Monday September 23, 2013 | 09:22 AM

 “One cannot change the Franciscan Franco-American roots of UNE, because it is the heart of the institution,” Norman Beaupre, ’67 Professor Emeritus of University of New England and an undergraduate of St. Francis College.

Richard L'Heureux '55 at Heritage Plaza

              A serene memorial park at the University of New England’s HeritagePlaza and the Founding Fathers Memorial, a small cemetery located behind the campus entrance, are lasting tributes to the Franco-American origins of the bustling campus on Hills Beach Road, in coastal Biddeford Pool.

Each of the memorials on the campus grounds are an oasis of natural serenity. They’re quietly nestled among the busy parking lots and bicycle traffic, providing opportunities to meditate, and learn about the spiritual and Franco-American origins of the university.

Over 6,000 students from all the UNE programs probably have an opportunity to visit these two sites while they focus on undergraduate, graduate and medical educations (data from an online report http://www.une.edu/oira/upload/12_month_enrollment.pdf).

            For the past several years, the UNE reunion weekends have also welcomed those who studied and worked at the campus before it became a university, when it was St.FrancisCollege and a preparatory high school.

Most of the first male students attending during the 1940-50s, were Franco-American young men, destined to move up to higher education and to seminaries. Founding Fathers of the school were two French-Canadian priests and siblings, Father Zernon Decary (1870-1940) and Msg. Arthur Decary (1872-1957). Both men are buried in the Founding Father’s memorial cemetery, with other founders, on a knoll behind the university’s entrance and across the street from Decary Hall. 

My husband Richard L’Heureux ’55, graduated from the preparatory boarding high school with 27 other, mostly Franco-American, boys. He was welcomed with the St.FrancisCollege and High School alumni to enjoy the Saturday, September 20th campus reunion festivities.

In the 1950’s, the school’s campus activities were conducted primarily in Decary Hall, where students and the Franciscan faculty focused their academics, gymnasium, cafeteria and boarding school. During our campus walking tour, we notice that the University retained the name of Decary Hall, honoring the founding sibling priests.

St. Francis alumni weekend included a reading by author Peter Makuck ’63, who gave a narrative from a mostly fictional account about some events in his formative years at St.FrancisCollege.

Peter Makuck'63 read from an anthology titled "Allegiences and Betrayals."

Makuck’s lead fictional character describes the youthful experience of climbing the Biddeford Pool water tower and leaving one’s initials behind as proof of accomplishing the challenge. Of course, my husband enjoyed Makuck’s reading because, indeed, he was among some of the students who participated in the water tower climbing student ritual. Like Makuck’s fictional character, my husband’s initials should be evidence of the feat, if they haven’t been eroded by nature and subsequent coats of paint.

Norman Beaupre of Biddeford ’67 of St.FrancisCollege and a Professor Emeritus of UNE, has supported the University’s Franco-American heritage. He and his wife Lucille are major benefactors of the HeritagePlaza. He led efforts to have the St. Francis stone sculptures once located on the Decary Hall building to be relocated to HeritagePark.  One stone carving is a rendition of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order of Friars; a second stone carving depicts Christ holding a Latin scroll reading Ego sum lux mundi (I am the light of the world)..

“St. Francis’s roots are very much French Canadian and Franco-American, ever since it was founded in the 1930s,” says Beaupre. 

“With time, the high school educated Franco-American boys who sought a faith related education while maintaining a strong attachment to their French heritage. Others attended who weren’t Francos; but the traditions and culture remained Franco-American.  The Decary priests were strongly tied to St. Francis. They supported a cultural and religious approach to education. I would say the core of the educational tradition of UNE, as it was known as St.FrancisCollege, is intrinsically its Franco-American heritage, even though it may not be celebrated as it once was,” he says. 

May 1, 1939, was when the school began with a ground braking. The St. Francis high school opened on November 15, 1939, with fourteen ninth graders attending. Tuition was $200 a year, which included board, room, books, sports equipment and transportation to and from the railroad station in Biddeford. Everything was covered in the cost except for laundry, which gave the boys an excuse to send their washing home and have it returned with cookies, writes Eleanor H. Haney in “Shaping a Future: The Founding of the University of New England”. (Unfortunately out of print.) 

Founders Memoriay with graves of Father Zernon and Msgr. Arthur Decary.

More information on Peter Makuck is available at http://www.makuck.com/site/

Norman Beaupre’s information is available at http://www.nrbeaupre.com/

UNE’s alumni department invites any St. Francis students to participate in future activities. Check the website http://www.alumni.une.edu/s/1080/start.aspx

About this Blog

Juliana L’Heureux is a freelance writer whose articles about Maine’s Franco-American history and culture have appeared in Portland newspapers for 25 years. She serves on the Maine Franco-American Leadership Council.

Juliana and her husband Richard live in Topsham ME. Feel free to contact her at Juliana@mainewriter.com.

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