Maine attraction draws a favor from Congress
"Qui perd sa langue," goes a Franco-American saying, "perd sa foi." Who loses his language, loses his faith.Skip to next paragraph
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The Franco-American Heritage Center here is determined not to lose either. The center is housed in a defunct Roman Catholic church that was once the core of this French-speaking mill town.
But as its linguistic subculture dwindles, the community has turned to the federal government for the kind of aid that's hard to translate into the local tongue: Qu'est-ce que ça veut dire, en français, "pork-barrel project"?
While lacking the fame or price of Alaska's infamous "bridges to nowhere," the $300,000 the center secured from Congress this year to restore its facade represents a small yet growing slice of the federal appropriations pie. Since 2001, "museum" projects – which include heritage centers, galleries, zoos, and halls of fame – have received 860 earmarks to the tune of $567 million, according to Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma.
Earmarks dedicate funds for pet projects that lawmakers add to spending bills. The heritage variety is "becoming bigger and bigger as mu- seums and tourism attractions look for alternative ways of being funded," says Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "They can present themselves as 'this is really education spending,' 'this is cultural spending,' 'this is spending on our heritage.' So the federal government becomes a substitute for [entry fees] or better publicity."
Local officials hope that renovating the center's splendid granite exterior will boost its tourist appeal – and help renew the community. "It's very important," says Rita Angers, standing on the center's steps that overlook what used to be Lewiston's working-class Little Canada neighborhood. The center is inside a gothic-style chapel that was once St. Mary's Church.
Ms. Angers remembers when the neighborhood used to walk through the snow to gather for Mass or work at the nearby Bates Mill. Social clubs like Le Passe-Temps, still active across the street, used to hold snowshoe races against out-of-town Quebecois.
When the Catholic Diocese of Portland vacated St. Mary's in 2000, community leaders rushed to transform the church into a cultural center to save it from the wrecking ball. Now, the city hopes to restore it as one of the preeminent symbols of French-speaking New England.
But even with its elegant interior and ornate stained-glass windows, the center seems to be more of a local community meeting place and performance hall than regional tourist mecca.
It's not for lack of trying. Promoters revived the building's historical charm at this weekend's Festival FrancoFun. No federal money was used for the party itself, but past earmarks enabled the concert series and banquets to be held inside the newly remodeled center, which boasts a set of inclined theater seats in the place of church pews.
"The mission of this center is to preserve the rich cultural traditions, language, and heritage of the Franco-Americans and to pass it on to the next generation so that it doesn't disappear," says Rita Dubé, the center's director. "We are doing a lot of educational things as well. There are a lot of services here that the community looks toward."
Among the services: French "reacquisition" classes for those who have forgotten their childhood language. According to census figures, 5.3 percent of Mainers speak French at home – more than in any other state.