Where is the French in Lewiston?
[organ starts]

NARRATOR: Mass is celebrated every day at Saints Peter and Paul's cathedral in downtown Lewiston Maine.


NARRATOR: On Saturday afternoons the service is run a bit differently than it is the rest of the week. It's in French.

MASS STARTS: Au nom du père et du fils et du Saint esprit. Amen.

NARRATOR: Most of the people who attend this mass speak French fluently. They are also, for the most part, over the age of 50. Many can remember when French was spoken everywhere in Lewiston.

[hymn starts]

MARTHE: Ma mere m'a appelé Marie Marthe.

NARRATOR: Marthe Rivard attends mass regularly. She's 93 years old. She immigrated to Lewiston from Quebec when she was 11, in 1922.

MARTHE: Dans ce temps la, il y avait beacoup beaucoup de Canadiens, et puis toute la famille ca parlait français

NARRATOR: Marthe settled with her family in Lewiston's 'Little Canada', where thousands of French–Canadians, called Franco–Americans were already living.

MARTHE: Dans les vitreaux c'etait marqué 'ici on parle français'

NARRATOR: Store windows announced 'ici on parle français, French is spoken here. A person could live in Little Canada and never speak a word of English.


NARRATOR: Today, the French mass draws only about 200 people each week.

LARIVIERE: I think we're going to see the time when there will be no more French masses offered here in Lewiston.

NARRATOR: Father Robert Lariviere is the pastor here at Saints Peter and Paul's.

LARIVIERE: Young people are not speaking French, even people of my own generation, who are middle aged– I'd say the majority of them prefer to attend English mass.

END OF MASS: Au nom du Pere et du Fils et le Saint–Esprit. Amen. Que le seigneur soit avec vous. Et avec vôtre ésprit.

[register beep]

MARTHE: Oh, you want a dollar for 20 cents, eh?

NARRATOR: Marthe works the register once a week at the gift shop at Saint Mary's Hospital's Gift Shop. She's been volunteering here since 1959. This is where she began to learn English, through her interactions with the non–French speaking customers.

CUSTOMER: How are you this evening?

NARRATOR: She's still here, 45 years later

MARTHE: Vous cherchez quelque chose de spéciale?
CUSTOMER: Don't speak no French!

NARRATOR: Immigrants from Canada came to Lewiston for Jobs in the textile mills, and in the shoe shops across the Androscoggin river, in Auburn. When Marthe was fifteen, she began working at a shoe factory. Everyone there spoke French. She had no need to learn English.

MARTHE: Like I said, I was too stubborn. I didn't want to. I didn't need it. So I was lazy in a way.

NARRATOR: Marthe married when she was 29, and had five children. The family spoke French at home. She was sixty years old when she finally learned English formally, in night school, while earning a high school diploma.

[register beep]
CUSTOMER: Thank you, have a good evening
MARTHE: Goodbye, thank you. You come again.

DIANE: Heel, 4–5–6–7, fourteen

NARRATOR: Marthe has been playing Scrabble once a week for over twenty–five years with her friend, Diane Meservier. At 58, Diane is a bit younger than Marthe, but they get along like grade–school friends. They started playing to improve their spelling in English.

DIANE: It just came about one day and I think she had a game out and she says to me, you should learn how to play Scrabbles, because I was a lousy speller! [laugh]

MARTHE: we don't know if we should put E–D– and things in the past, we don't know. But we're learning by playing Scrabble.

NARRATOR: Like many of her generation, Diane's children don't speak much French, and her grandchildren don't understand it. The situation is similar with Marthe's children, who are about Diane's age.

MARTHE: Ils parlent français. Parlait français tout le temps, 'puis tout d'un coup, l'autre arrive– tout en anglais.

NARRATOR: Marthe says that when her children visit, they'll speak in French with her, but not with each other.

MARTHE: So why don't they? Because my husband was French. Their parents also, their aunts and uncles, everybody was French. Why do they do that? I don't know.

NARRATOR: The French–speaking community that Marthe remembers doesn't exist anymore. Franco–Americans no longer live concentrated in Little Canada. They began to assimilate into the English speaking culture as they moved away when the mills started closing, after World War Two. Today, the majority of Maine's over one–hundred–thousand Franco–Americans still live within an hour's drive of Lewiston. But very few speak French at home. And younger people have lost touch with the culture.

COURCHESNE: They don't know they're Franco–American, until you ask them: How many of you are Francos?

NARRATOR: Michel Courchesne teaches French at Lewiston Middle School. He includes a unit on the city's Franco–American history in his classes.

COURCHESNE: How many of you are Franco–Americans? No hands. How many of you have a mémé and pépé? I do, I do. All of a sudden you've got hands up all over the place. If you have a mémé and pépé, well then you, yourself are of French descent. I am? Yes you are. What's your name? Burgeron. Well, that's French name. It's really pronounced Bergerand.

NARRATOR: Courchesne's eighth–grade students produced a video in 2001 about Saint Mary's Church in Little Canada.

VIDEO: St. mary's church became the second home to the French Canadian immigrants.

NARRATOR: The church was converted that year into the Franco–American Heritage Center, and the students recorded its inauguration. The Center's goal is to preserve and promote Franco–American culture. It houses a concert hall, and soon it will open a museum and archive. For the past couple of years, Courchesne has partnered with the Heritage Center on an oral history project: His students interview elderly Francos in the community, in English, in order to learn about their cultural roots. Then they write essays about them. Over four hundred of these stories have been put into the Center's archives so far. Courchesne recognizes these kinds of projects probably won't form a new generation of fluent French speakers. But he is hopeful that that people in Lewiston will hold onto some parts of their Franco roots.

COURCHESNE: I was just at a bank doing this business with this customer service person. And she had to make a phone call, and at the end of the phone call she says, to her friend, 'Merci mon ami. Bonne après–midi.' Her whole business world is all in English, and she has this moment to speak a little bit in French. That's holding on to culture. A bit of it anyway.

[Music: Canadian jig]

NARRATOR: Marthe loves Canadian jigs. She listens to them on a tape recorder in her kitchen as she sits by the window, reading or sewing.

[raise music]

NARRATOR: Lewiston's no longer the French–speaking city it once was. Some are fighting to keep the language alive, but they come up against its disappearance from the home. Marthe sees this clearly.

MARTHE: After my generation, oh I'm sorry about that, but I think it will be– I'm afraid it will be lost.

NARRATOR: Marthe doesn't express strong emotions over the loss of French in Lewiston. With her life experiences comes a certain acceptance of change. She loves her language.

MARTHE: I like to keep it. It's so nice if you can speak both French and English.

'Faut s'ajusté.

NARRATOR: But you have to adapt, she says. Things change.

MARTHE: Oui, ça change.

[raise music]

NARRATOR: For Salt Radio, this is Sarah Elzas.

[music out until end]

This piece premiered in May 2004 at the Salt Gallery as part of the show Everything in Particular. It aired on August 30, 2004 on Maine Public Radio's Maine Things Considered, and a shortened version (4:29) aired the week of September 29, 2004 on Primetime Radio. It is also featured in moé pi toé, the online publication of the Franco-American Women's Institute.

Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Lewiston, Maine
Photos: Amy Toensing