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USM Voices: Haitian students learn about Franco-Americans at LAC

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Story by Juliana L’Heureux from the Bangor Daily News

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's 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.

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. 

Richard L'Heureux, Celia McGuckian, Mary Rice-DeFosse and Anna Faherty at the USM LAC Franco-American Collection in Lewiston Maine

Preparing to host the students from Haiti at The Franco-American Collection at USM LAC in Lewiston are from the left Richard L’Heureux, Celia McGuckian, Mary Rice-DeFosse and Anna Faherty

“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!

Students were able to examine a pair of antique hand made snow shoes while my husband Richard described “la beaucoup neige”. The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn book was co-authored by Professor Mary Rice-Defosse who led the student tours, in French.

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).

French-Canadian mill workers pictured in the permanent photograph exhibit in the hall at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC).

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. 

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a freelance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.