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Preserving the past and the arts in the heart of Lewiston

The Gendron Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts hosts everything from weddings to politicians to film festivals.

LEWISTON, Maine — In the midst of the old mills of Lewiston, a beautiful stone church stands out. So does the neon sign next to it, advertising the next performance coming to town. 

The Gendron Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts stands only because a community fought to keep it. This building was built by Canadian immigrants; families who came to work in the mills and wanted a place of worship they could walk to. 

"They started collecting quarters, nickels, dimes to build it," says the Franco Center's executive director, Mitch Thomas. "It took them 20 years to complete it."

By 2000, St. Mary's Catholic Church was one of the churches slated for deconsecration from the diocese. There just weren't enough people going to church anymore, but the community couldn't bear to see it go. 

"They were going to demolish the church," explains Thomas. "Folks in the Franco community got together and said, 'That’s our church. Our moms and dads and grandparents built it and we would like to maintain or retain this beautiful building if we can.' They did a handshake and a dollar bill exchange and got it, and they said, 'What are we gonna do with it now?'"

Credit: NCM

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What they did was make it the event space it is today. A volunteer board was formed and then executive director, Rita S. Dube helped raise the money to renovate the space. Now, in the sanctuary there are weddings; funerals; concerts; ballet and other performances; and political rallies. 

Downstairs, there are luncheons in honor of the Franco heritage; community gatherings; and the Emerge Film Festival. 

"We are here for everyone’s heritage and anyone and everyone’s performing arts," says Thomas. "If there was going to be an Irish Heritage Day in Lewiston or Somali Heritage Day or the people from the Djibouti community have held their National Day here." The overall idea is to keep it a community gathering place, just like it was intended when construction first began in 1907. 

The Emerge Film Festival in Lewiston is going on now through Saturday, and it presents films from Maine and beyond.

For more information about the festival click here.

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