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The Grey Nuns: They Came-They Served

By Rachel Morin

“Elles Sont Venues-Elles Ont Servi

This sentiment was proclaimed on the attractive plaque over the Exhibit at the Franco-American Heritage Center honoring and recognizing the work of the Sisters of Charity, The Grey Nuns, of Sainte-Hyacinthe, Quebec.

They came to Lewiston 134 years ago at the invitation and request of the fledging French-Canadian community to teach their young. The immigrant population, many who could not speak English, realized if their children were to be educated, they needed to be taught in their mother tongue and English would come later. By doing so, it would ensure keeping their French language and their Faith alive.

It was an earlier time when Lewiston had no welfare and no social workers. Families took care of their own. The Grey Nuns came and were the backbone of the young community in the heart of “Little Canada.” They were impassioned, and they were the social workers of today.

Teaching was not their forte; health care and working with the sick was their strength. As history has shown, The Sisters of Charity accepted the challenge and the children thrived under their tutelage.

It was a big celebration night at FAHC, full of nostalgia, as a large social gathering shared memories and enjoyed refreshments in Heritage Hall. The Dedication of the Exhibit, housed in a former Confessional when it was St. Mary’s Church, followed in Performance Hall.

Although the exhibit space is small, many crowded in to see the beautiful murals taken from old-time photographs depicting the nuns’ legacy to the community. A rocking chair encourages visitors to sit and reflect. A computer is available to view the history of the Sisters of Charity’s work. The exhibit is open to the public during the regular hours at the Franco Center.

Speakers’ tributes to the nuns and a documentary film recounted the history of the nuns’ dedicated work and contributions to the Lewiston-Auburn area in teaching, social work and founding of L’Hopital Generale Sainte Marie, now the St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. The film showed many local people being interviewed.

Speakers included Raymond Lagueux, Board President FAHC; Rita Dube, Executive Director, FAHC; Mary Rice DeFosse, Professor Bates College and Board Member FAHC; Annette I. Bourque, Multi-media Designer/Archivist SMRMC; and Reverande Soeur Diane Beaudoin s.c.s.h., Superierure Generale, Sisters of Charity, of Sainte-Hyacinthe, Quebec.

The exhibit, documentary film and program have been two years in the planning and is due largely to the efforts of Rita Dube, Annette I. Bourque and Mary Rice DeFosse. The women felt the history and legacy of the Sisters of Charity was a long time in coming and needed to be documented.

A highlight of the evening was 15-year-old Shu Jing Lian, pianist and honor student at Poland Regional High School, who played classical compositions from memory by J.S. Bach and Frederic Chopin. She has been studying the piano since she was four-years-old.

The program concluded with Rita Dube expressing thanks and gratitude for everyone who has helped FAHC over the years. She expressed appreciation for the Maine Humanities Council for the grant that made the exhibit possible, and thanked St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, Bates College Department of French and Francophone Studies, USM’s Lewiston/Auburn College’s Franco-American Collection, Friends of the Franco-American Heritage Center and its many volunteers.

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