LEWISTON, Me– Maine’s French heritage, language and immigrant history was showcased on Thursday, July 18, when high school students from Haiti visited Lewiston, to learn about the city’s Franco-Americans.
Sixteen high school students from Haiti and two advisers were guests at the Franco-American Collection (The Collection), located in the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC) and at the Gendron Franco-Center, on Cedar Street (formerly, St. Mary’s Church). They learned about Franco-Americans from local people who spoke to them in French.
Prior to arriving in Portland and visiting Lewiston, the group were in Washington DC for several days. They toured the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, the World War II Memorial and they visited the White House (maison Blanche).
The student group is sponsored by the CIEE in Portland.
CIEE is the Council on International Educational Exchange, a non-profit organization founded in 1947, and headquartered in Portland, Maine. https://www.ciee.org/
Mary Rice-DeFosse, a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, led the tours, in French, at The Collection and the Gendron Franco Center locations. She has served on the Board of Directors with each of the Franco-American organizations. She is the co-author of the book, “The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn“, with James Myall.
“This group was simply delightful!,” she said.
My husband Richard L’Heureux welcomed the group at USM LAC. “Bienvenue!” Then, he asked them if anyone had ever seen snow? None of the students had ever seen “la neige”. One of the group’s adult travel advisers, Pierre Lubin, who works at McGill University, in Montreal, had obviously experienced snow. A pair of antique hand made snowshoes (des raquettes) were passed around for the students to look at, while my husband described “en francais” just how high the winter snow piles up in Maine. Indeed, there was a sense of disbelief when the students learned that snow drifts in Maine can be as high as the ceiling in The Collection’s classroom!
An overview about Lewiston’s French-Canadian immigrant history was the main topic during the student tours. A permanent photograph exhibit on the walls in the USM LAC hall and in the “Cafe L-A” were the highlights. One large photograph is the picture of immigrant mill workers, many of them were child laborers, who worked without wearing shoes (sans chaussures).
Rice-DeFosse also accompanied the group on their bus to view some of Lewiston’s “petit Canada” locations. They saw the Grand Trunk railroad station and places where the French-Canadian workers lived when they arrived from Canada to work in the mills, located along the Androscoggin River.
“We took a tour of le Petit Canada, down Lincoln St. to the Grand Trunk station to the railroad bridge over the Androscoggin River, then back to the Gendron Franco Center. Edmond Gay, at the Gendron Franco Center, interacted a lot with the students in French,” she said.
This following email message was gratefully received, from Pierre M. Lubin:
Dear Juliana and Richard,
We thank you both and your affable, wonderful team for a fruitful, meaningful experience. You were so warm and kind to us. What’s more, we have been tremendously enhanced as a result of the priceless time we spent in the company of Professor Rice-Defosse.
The young ambassadors had a great time and certainly learned many important lessons. You’ve given them so much to share and think about. On that note, I will end this email with three French words, as one or two are insufficient: merci mille fois!
P.S. Thank you for the pictures; it’s with great zeal that I will share them with the group.
Pierre M. Lubin , PhD, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University
A charming anecdote occurred when the time came to take a group photograph. “How do you say ‘smile’, in French”, I asked them, in English? In a spontaneous unified chorus, they immediately replied, “Chee-eeeese!” Our nations may be a continent apart, but we obviously communicated with ease, in French and in English.
Among the questions the observant students asked was why there was a Haitian flag (drapeau) displayed in the Franco-American Collection? In fact, le drapeau had been on display for la semaine de la Francophone, celebrated every year in the month of March.
The Haitian students competed academically to participate in the CIEE visit to the United States. They explained how they were required to have excellent academic school grades before they could apply. Their application included writing an essay, where they were required to describe what they hoped to achieve during an educational visit. In the large group that applied, 16 were selected.
Local assistance for the tours, along with Rice-DeFosse, and Richard, and Juliana L’Heureux, included Marueen Perry, who is the USM LAC librarian, and a member of the Board with The Collection, Celia McGuckian, a Board member with The Collection, and Anna Faherty, an archivist who is assisting with organizing and digitizing the The Collection’s data.