April 08, 2020

Maine’s ‘La Marraine’> Lewiston’s Giguere highly regarded by Franco-Americans

In Maine’s Franco-American circles, Madeleine Giguere is known as “la marraine,” the godmother, a title indicative of the high regard in which Giguere, her work and her efforts on behalf of others are held.

A Lewiston native, Giguere is one of last year’s recipients of a Maryann Hartman Award. The awards, sponsored by UMaine’s Women In the Curriculum and Women’s Studies programs, are presented each year to three Maine women who have inspired others through their work and community service.

While Giguere’s work as an educator and researcher has earned her respect throughout the United States and Canada, many believe her effort to collect and report data on the state’s Franco-American population is her most significant contribution. Tracking statistics about Mainers of French descent remains an area of study that few — if any — other Maine researchers have tackled.

“Nobody else has done it. It’s really tedious work,” Giguere acknowledged in a recent interview at her home on Germaine Street, not far from the home at the corner of Webster Avenue and Orange Street where she grew up the only child of a Lewiston doctor and a public school teacher.

Nevertheless, Giguere is responsible for identifying the large percentage of Maine people who are Franco-American, an estimated one out of three, and has extracted from otherwise lifeless U.S. Census figures meaningful information about the state’s French heritage.

Her groundbreaking work with Maine’s Franco demographics began in the early 1970s, a heady and exciting period of ethnic revival many say was sparked by the Vietnam War. With the nation’s social structure turned on its ear, people of French, Irish, African, American Indian and virtally every other cultural extraction began reclaiming and re-examining their heritage and beliefs.

Giguere’s findings helped shed light on the social and economic characteristics of Mainers of French descent.

“She believed in the power of numbers,” said author Rhea Cote Robbins of Brewer, who nominated Giguere for the award. “Madeleine determined her course of work in tracking the French through the U.S. Census because she believed that numbers do open avenues for other kinds of change to take place.

“Having a visible and viable presence on the national level increases and enhances the possibilities for Franco-Americans to be seen as a political body.”

In 1986, Robbins said, Giguere led an effort to include a question on ancestry in the 1990 U.S. Census to help determine the size of cultural groups. Without the ability to indicate ancestry, as well as language, Franco-Americans would have continued to be perceived as a much smaller portion of Maine’s total population than they are now.

Though Giguere officially retired from her post as head of the University of Southern Maine’s sociology department in 1990, her extensive knowledge of Franco-American demographics remains in great demand.

“She’s a walking library,” says Sen. Judy Paradis, D-Frenchville. “She’s a wealth of information. I’ve been a fan of hers for years. She’s one of our gurus.”

Giguere’s most recent effort involves her work as a member of the Commission to Study Development of Maine’s Franco-American Resource, created by legislation presented by Paradis.

“She’s a legend in the field,” said Connie LaPointe-Brennan, commission chairman. “We’ve learned a good deal from her.”

Among Giguere contributions to the study, which looks at the potential of the Franco-American community regarding economic development opportunities, are demographic profiles, information on education levels and breakdowns on where people who speak French can be found.

A report to the Legislature on the findings of the study is in draft form. The final version is expected to be completed in about a month.

Giguere said keeping on top of changing Franco demographics has become more difficult since budget cuts closed the state’s data center. As she was interviewed for this story in her home in a quiet Lewiston neighborhood, Giguere listened for the fax machine in her home office to deliver data from MISER, the Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Massachetts, the closest source she was able to find for census information about Maine.

Though Giguere’s academic career has taken her as far away as Jamaica, her heart has never strayed far from Lewiston’s brick mills and canals.

“It’s my home. I wouldn’t want to move anyplace else,” she said with characteristic frankness.

Giguere has surrounded herself with things most important to her, many illustrating the interconnected and recurring themes that have fueled her life’s work: her French ancestry, the importance of family, the Roman Catholic Church and the mills of Lewiston.

The shelves in the living room are filled with photographs that span generations, including pictures of her paternal Giguere and maternal Callier forebears, who, like many other French Canadians, migrated to New England in search of a better life.

“They came here for a job, and they believed in hard work,” she said. “They pursued happiness through family, community and service.”

On one wall of Giguere’s bedroom hangs a painting by Marc Poirier, depicting a view of Lewiston from the Auburn side of the Androscoggin River, which once powered the textile mills for which Lewiston was known. The scene takes in, among other things, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. Founded in 1870, it was the first parish in Maine established to serve the French-speaking Canadians who came to work in the mills. Eight years later, the parish started the state’s first bilingual parochial school.

On another wall is a copy of a 1709 map of the Cote de Beaupre-Ile d’Orleans region in Quebec. The map shows where, on the northern bank of the St. Lawrence River, Giguere’s forebears lived centuries ago.

On a table is a reliquary, yet another variation of the intertwining themes. The small shrine, which once belonged to her father, holds minute bone fragments of St. Gabriel Lalemant, St. Jean de Brebeuf and Charles Garnier, three of a group known as the North American Martyrs, six French Jesuits and two assistants killed by the Iroquois between 1642 and 1649, a period of fierce rivalry between Iroquois and Hurons who were allied with English and French colonists.

Though her educational pursuits kept her away from Lewiston for extended periods, she found herself settled in 1965.

“I started being a faculty activist in 1970-71 because the women were underpaid at the university, in spite of having the same credentials as their male counterparts,” she said.

In her presentation at the Hartman Awards reception, Robbins noted Giguere and some of her colleagues organized USM women to push for the adoption of affirmative action guidelines in the University of Maine System. Because of this work, then Gov. Ken Curtis appointed Giguere to the Governor’s Advisory Council on Women, one of several leadership posts she held in the equal rights arena.

Giguere, however, does not see herself as political, a characteristic she believes holds true for Franco-Americans as a group.

“One of the characteristics of Franco-Americans is that they don’t rock the boat,” she said. “They are family oriented, kin oriented. They are interested in making a living, but not in being the richest or most successful.”

But she points out that becoming involved in local politics enabled many French-Canadians in Lewiston to make the move from mill jobs to more desirable occupations. Such was the case with her own grandfathers. One became chief of police and the other landed a coveted post office job.

Since retiring from USM in 1990, Giguere has served as volunteer director of the Franco-American Heritage Collection at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus, a post she held until a year ago. In that capacity, she screened some 2,000 books and entered them into the university library’s URSUS computer data base, developing carpal tunnel syndrome in the process. She copied all the Franco-American papers onto acid-free papers and stored them in acid-free compartments to preserve them for future generations. She helped research a recently published history of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Parish in Lewiston.

Among her current projects is to research the life of Lewiston newspaperwoman Charlotte Michaud.

“That’s this box right here,” Giguere said, pointing to a cardboard box filled with documents about Michaud, who she admits intrigues her.

“She was a contemporary of my mother’s and I saw her any number of times,” Giguere said. “It’s a bit of detective work. She did write a lot. She wrote Dorothy Parkerlike verse. She fancied herself a dance critic.”

Born in the late 1800s, Michaud was the daughter of a printer for Le Messager, a French-language newspaper published in Lewiston from 1880 through 1966. Giguere describes Michaud as a “young, perky woman” when she embarked on her writing career at the Lewiston paper, but she lost her job when a new boss arrived and became a free-lance writer for such publications as La Presse of Montreal and the Portland Press Herald.

Among the trends that Giguere has tracked over the decades is the continuing decline of the use of French in Maine. But how to reverse that trend — or even if it should be — is something that Giguere admits escapes her.

“I’ve never been an activist in that sense … I never went out proselytizing,” she said. “I’ve never felt responsible for doing something about [saving the language]. If there’s a French event, I go to it. I’m part of the audience … My feeling is that it’s very difficult to maintain [French] in an English-speaking atmosphere.

“I can remember going to my aunt’s as a child and they were listening to a French station from Montreal,” she said. That Lewiston continues to have access to French television and radio stations might be a key to the use of the language in the future.

“We need to be fluent in all aspects of the language — not only the literature, but the recipes and sports and soap operas,” Giguere said. “The context has to change. If you do have to speak French to your grandmother as I did, you continue to speak French.”

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