SACO – Rena Deis was known as a “consummate historian.”

One of her most extensive collections was “The Living History in Costume,” more than 2,000 items that Mrs. Deis accumulated over the years and showed off at fashion shows throughout Maine. She encouraged her family and friends to get involved and model various fashions, from bloomers to wedding gowns.

The collection was a testament to how much she valued history, said her daughter, Cynthia Labelle.

Mrs. Deis died Tuesday. She was 94.

Growing up on Pool Road in Biddeford and later settling on Hill Street in Saco, Mrs. Deis was tied to the history of the area.

“These things were valuable to her … the lives of our forefathers were important to her,” said Labelle, whose mother’s home was full of historical artifacts. “It was her love, the value she put on the events of this community.”

With a collection of clothing from the 17th century to the 21st century, Mrs. Deis had a wealth of knowledge of antique fabrics and clothing styles.

In her nearly 30 years on the secretarial staff for St. Francis College, which became the University of New England, she taught classes on antique fabrics, her daughter said. “She would bring in her expertise with the fabrics of early times and how they were treated, let (the students) experience them.”

Mrs. Deis also was a talented organist, who played at the Second Congregational Church and the Foss Street Methodist Church in Biddeford and the First Parish Congregational Church in Saco.

“Music was her life,” aside from delving into history, her daughter said. “That’s what she loved.”

She often pushed the boundaries of typical church music. Her daughter said she was integral in the first production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Maine, while people protested outside the First Parish Congregational Church in 1973. “She was very fearless in the way she presented” cutting-edge music for the church, she said.

Mrs. Deis was the organist and music director at First Parish for nearly 30 years. Throughout that time, she collected various items of importance and kept a history of the church that accumulated in 14 scrapbooks, her daughter said.

When the church on the corner of Beach and Main streets in Saco burned in 2000, most of the history kept there was lost.

“Thanks to her historical consciousness,” Labelle said, “(the scrapbooks) had everything that had gone on at the church.”

Labelle has since donated her mother’s scrapbooks to the local library and museum for historical record keeping.

“Instead of keeping them to myself, they need to be seen,” she said of her mother’s collections. “They need to be experienced. They need to be known.”

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]


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