Friday December 13, 2013 | 11:06 AM

            An energized logo is setting an upbeat tone for the cultural and contemporary buzz at Lewiston’s popular Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts, on Cedar Street. Helped by generous grants and community support, the former St. Mary’s Church was able to fund important construction upgrades, install energy efficient heat, and lights, and state of the art lighting and sound. Moreover, event parking is available adjacent to the building. Cultural exhibits enrich the interior of the former church’s vestibule and sanctuary, which is now a brightly decorated Performance Hall, with comfortable seating.

Louis Morin at Franco Center for Heritage and Performing Arts

Louis Morin is Executive Director of the Franco Center for Heritage and Performing Arts

          Louis Morin, is a Franco-American and executive director of the FrancoCenter. He led me on a walking tour of the two story building. Along the way (including a ride on the Center’s modern elevator), he explained the challenges and opportunities of leading the non-profit organization’s mission, “to celebrate and preserve Franco-American heritage, while welcoming the culture of Lewiston’s neighbors”.

“We honor our Franco-American history while growing the variety of contemporary programs offered. It’s a delicate balance, as we work toward creating sustainable initiatives, we must extend our reach to attract public support,” he says.

Dozens of international, national and local performers are attracted to the Center every year. They range from classical music, to comedy, modern dance, choral groups, benefit performances, professional piano concerts and more. The Heritage Hall, located downstairs, and the Performance Hall upstairs, are booked nearly every weekend, especially during the Holidays, (les fetes) between Thanksgiving and New Years.

Franco heritage is supported at the Center through language programs and community outreach. French classes are offered (at locations in the Franco Center and in local schools) and to adults, as well. La Rencontre (the gathering) is a French language luncheon held on the second Thursday of every month. Tours are given of the museum with photos and artifacts depicting Franco immigrant culture. There’s also a lending library from the French publications library. Annually in March, the Center celebrates ‘La Semaine de la Francophonie’ (Francophone Week).

Franco Center museum family photo of Rita Dube's family

Franco-American family potrait adorns entry to Heritage Hall from the Center's Foyer

Museum exhibits include a tribute to Lewiston’s “Les Soeurs Grises”, or the “Grey Nuns”. They came by train from Montreal in the late 19th century, to help French Canadian immigrants. In so doing, their work helped to build many social services organizations, including the St. Mary’s Hospital.  Les Soeurs Grises is the religious order of sisters founded by Saint Marguerite D’Youville (1701-1771), of Quebec.

Morin has been the Center’s executive director for 16 months. He was hired by the Board following the retirement of Rita Dube, who held the position for 12 years.

Dube was among the community leaders who saw the potential for a Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, after the St. Mary’s church closed. She collaborated with Franco leaders, including local former Lewiston Mayor Lionel Guay and French radio host and former state legislator Constance Cote, to develop programming, as well as lead the extensive and expensive building renovations, that were essential to the Center’s success as a community resource. As a matter of fact, many of Cote's French music record collection are stored in the museum archives.

Cote LP French music records at Franco Center

Collection of French music- Cote's long playing records are stored in the museum's archives

            Nevertheless, the cost of maintaining the Franco Center continues to challenge the Board’s sustainability plan. As with many worthy non-profit organizations, access to grant monies becomes more competitive every year. Although the cost of heating the building (which first opened in 1927) was greatly reduced with the installation of natural gas, it’s still expensive. Utilities cost about $13,000 annually. Snow plowing the building’s parking lot costs $8,000 a year and another $14,000 is needed to pay insurances. As a result the revenue over operating expense gap are challenging to balance.

“Public support is essential,” says Morin.

Franco Center logo  Looking ahead, Morin envisions attracting more community and private sponsors to support the Center’s growing schedule of performing arts programs. 

For more information check the website: http://www.francocenter.org/

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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