Monday November 04, 2013 | 09:34 AM

 “Franco-American historic churches are beautiful reminders of an important period in our regional history,” says Margaret Langford, of Keene NH, professor emerita of French, and Franco-American studies and a historic preservationist from Keene State College.

             Roman Catholic parishes are consolidating and churches closing throughout Maine, and New England in response to population shifts and fewer priests to minister to the parishes. 

Margaret Langford, 78, from KeeneNH, believes Franco-American churches should be protected from demolition. By preserving the targeted churches, she believes they will be given an opportunity to be repurposed and, in so doing, will protect Franco-American history.

Margaret Langford historic preservationist

Margaret Langford 

“Franco-American historic churches are beautiful reminders of an important period in our New England regional history,” she says.

Among the Maine churches she’s working to save from demolition are St. Joseph’s Church, located on Main Street, in Lewiston, and St. Louis Church, located on 3rd Street, in Auburn.

Although she’s been involved in historic preservation for many years, she became active in the preservation of Franco-American churches about a year ago when a new Hampshire State Representative and fellow preservationist Steve Lindsey asked her to join his effort to save Saint Stephen’s Church in Attleboro, Mass. 

In fact, Langford is poetically passionate about saving beautiful Franco-American churches from destruction. She’s even written a poem about St. Stephen’s Church, which could be adapted as an ode to any church in line for demolition.

Throughout Maine and New England, Roman Catholic churches were built in response to the growing number of French Canadian immigrants who were needed to provide labor in textile and manufacturing mills during the last two centuries.

Between the 1850s and through the 1930s, it’s estimated that over 900,000 French-Canadians immigrated to the US, primarily to New England. One important attraction to keep the waves of immigrants in their communities was to provide them access to Roman Catholic churches and parochial schools. These churches and their associated parochial schools supported liturgies in French and provided bilingual (French and English) education for children. 

There’s a precedent in Maine for repurposing closed churches.

St. Dominic’s Church on 34 Gray Street in Portland is now the MaineIrishHeritageCenter.

Maine Irish Heritage Center former St. Dominic's Church

Maine Irish Heritage Center former St. Dominic's Church in Portland

St. Mary’s (Ste-Marie) Church on 46 Cedar Street in Lewiston eventually became the Franco-AmericanHeritageCenter (Le Centre D’Heritage Franco-Americain), a performing arts and cultural venue, visibly located in the city’s downtown. This cultural center is appropriately situated directly opposite the Continental Mills in Lewiston’s “Little Canada” community, where Franco-Americans lived, worked and worshipped.

Franco-American Heritage Center Lewiston former St. Mary's Church

Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston formerly St. Mary's Church

Some 30 years ago, the oldest French-Acadian church in Maine, Notre Dame du Mont-Carmel in the town of Lille (near Van Buren) was about to be demolished. It was saved by a local private corporation created to purchase the church and rectory from the Diocese of Portland. Today, the church is an active organization called Le Culturel Acadian du Mont-Carmel. 

Musee Culturel du Mont-Carmel Lille

Musee Culturel du Mont-Carmel in Lille (photo by Don Cyr) former Notre Dame du Mont-Carmel in the parish of Lille in Grand Isle Township

Unfortunately, the St. Joseph’s Church on Main Street in Lewiston is targeted for demolition. Nevertheless, it may yet be saved, says Langford. Although St. Joseph’s Church was originally built for Lewiston’s Irish immigrants, the parish welcomed French-Canadians. St. Joseph’s Church is important to Franco-Americans because it’s the first church where Lewiston’s French Canadian immigrants worshipped before building the impressive and now repurposed St. Mary’s Church (HeritageCenter). In response to a public outcry involving Langford and other historic preservationists, the request to demolish St. Jopseph's was withdrawn.

Langford says the Franco-American Heritage Center could potentially connect with the St. Joseph’s Church, to expand the Franco-American presence, past and present, in two distinct Lewiston locations. “Preserving St. Joseph’s Church would be honoring both the Irish and the Franco-American cultures,” she says.

 In another effort, the St. Louis Church in Auburn may be saved and respectfully repurposed. Auburn’s Mayor Jonathan P. LaBonte is among the advocates promoting the preservation of his city’s Roman Catholic church, says Langford. 

St. Louis Roman Catholic Church in Auburn

St. Louis Roman Catholic Church now closed in Auburn hopes to be repurposed (photo by Juliana L'Heureux)

“It’s my experience that in Lewiston and Auburn, both the Catholics and the non-Catholics alike value and support our historic preservation efforts,” says Langford. 

Langford’s poem “When the Dead Speak” was first published in Eté/Summer 2013 issue of The Forum, published by the University of Maine.

When the Dead Speak: Ode to our Franco-American Churches

The dead speak quietly.

No one asked

for their opinion.

They give it nonetheless.

Names carved

on graveyard stones

create a formidable petition.

Their mute testimony

and beloved church

record their lives.

Here are the ties,

the links from old to new.

Here two countries join

in hearts and minds.

These silent witnesses

protest

the violation of their history

and desecration of their legacy.

Margaret S. Langford

Keene NH email: mslang@sover.net

 Information about the repurposed churches St. Dominic’s in Portland, St. Mary’s in Lewiston a and Notre Dame in Lille, ME are found at these sites:

Maine Irish HeritageCenterhttp://www.maineirish.com/

Franco-American HeritageCenterhttp://www.francocenter.org/

Le Culturel Acadian du Mont-Carmel: http://acim.umfk.maine.edu/mont_carmel.html

 

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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