When you are visiting the Franco Center, please make sure to view our latest exhibit, “Elles sont Venues, Elles Ont Servi.” It is our tribute to the Grey Nuns, an order of religious women who served and supported the Franco-American community here in Lewiston/Auburn at crucial times in our forefathers’ experience here in the US as immigrants.
The exhibit is located in the Performance Hall during business hours and events, and features a multimedia look at the lives and times of this unique order of nuns who tirelessly pledged themselves to the service of women, children, the infirmed, and the downtrodden.
The first Grey Nuns arrived in Lewiston in 1878 at the behest of the Reverend Pierre Hevey, a Roman Catholic priest and native of Saint Hyacinth who saw the many dire needs of the local working poor, the majority of whom were from French-speaking Canada. Although the first French-speaking immigrants to the industrial cities of Maine arrived in the 1860s, French-Canadians seeking work came in increasing waves from the 1880s until the 1930s. The Franco-American population of Maine was unique among immigrants to Maine in this period because this was a North American group that remained in close proximity to the country of origin. Even more importantly, Maine’s Franco-Americans were able to build a community within a community, establishing parishes, schools, hospitals, newspapers, credit unions and other institutions of their own, permitting them to maintain their mother tongue, their culture of origin, and their own values. Unlike immigrant groups who often assimilated into English-speaking society after the first generation, Franco-Americans continued to speak and live in French for three, four, or even five generations. As historian Mark Paul Richard has shown, Franco-Americans negotiated their identities in unique ways, challenging and changing the cultural environment of the twin cities.
The first French-speaking immigrants to New England were men who hoped to remain only as long as it took to amass savings from factory wages to return home to Canada, but by the late 1870s more and more families arrived to settle in Little Canadas like the one in Lewiston. With them came French-speaking Canadians who saw opportunities to settle as well: merchants and other entrepreneurs, doctors and lawyers, and members of religious communities who served the spiritual, educational, and corporeal needs of the Franco-Americans.
In 1878, when Father Hevey saw the rising need for aid to the people of Lewiston’s Little Canada, he turned to the Sisters of Charity of Saint Hyacinth, Québec for good reason. While many Roman Catholic religious orders eventually came to Maine to work among the state’s Franco-Americans, the Grey Nuns’ mission of service to the poor distinguished this order of religious women. The order was founded in 1744 by Marguerite d’Youville, who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as its first Canadian-born saint in 1990. Marguerite d’Youville’s own life experience as a fatherless child, a neglected wife, a widow and single mother informed the mission of the Sisters of Charity: to serve the poor in whatever way necessary. In her lifetime she worked with disabled soldiers, the elderly, the mentally ill, foundlings and orphans. When the Sisters of Charity of Saint Hyacinth, Québec accepted Father Hevey’s request, they were willing to take on new tasks such as education in addition to their work as sister-nurses. The Grey Nuns grew and changed as the community developed.