Bringing French into Portland’s Customs House

PORTLAND, Me–   Félicitations l’Alliance Francaise du Maine! “It is a bond that lies at the heart of Maine,” said Governor Janet Mills during her speech.

Governor Mills and Maine legislators at the Portland US Customs House on August 29 with Consul General Arnaud Mentre

Honored to be included among the guests at the Portland U.S. Customs House for the launch of l’Alliance Francaise, with Governor Janet Mills. Pictured from the left, Representative Ryan Fecteau, Senator Susan Deschambault, Governor Janet Mills, Juliana L’Heureux and standing behind the governor is Consul General Arnaud Mentre, who hosted the reception with l’Alliance President Régine Whittlesey.

Although I’ve passed the US Customs House located on Portland’s Fore Street hundreds of times, I had never been inside the historic building.  It’s beautiful!

On Friday,August 29, the Customs House was buzzing with French language speakers, who enjoyed samplings of French wines, hors d’oeuvres and music to commemorate the launching of l’Alliance Francaise du Maine!

My husband and I were invited to the launching ceremonies, held inside the center of the Customs House, in a lovely reception hall. We were honored to attend with distinguished guests and new French speaking Mainers. Hosts for the launch and reception were Consul General of France in Boston Arnaud Mentre and President of l’Alliance Francaise du Maine Régine Whittlesey. Maine legislators were also among the guests, including the Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, State Senator from York County Susan Deschambault and Biddeford Representative Ryan Fecteau.

Moreover, the historic Customs House was made all the more significant during the ceremonies when Maine Governor Janet Mills presented a keynote speech to mark the occasion.  She graciously sent a copy of her speech to me for the purpose of publishing the narrative in this blog.

The United States Custom House is a historic custom house at 312 Fore Street in downtown Portland, Maine. It was built from 1867–1872 to house offices of the United States Customs Service, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. My husband and Dan Deveau, the Canadian Ombudsman to Governor Mills, enjoyed a tour of the building, led by Tom Severance, the property Manager. His office was once occupied by a past Maine governor and Civil War officer, Joshua Chamberlain.

Portland Maine U.S. Customs House

An international banner of flags hanging inside of Portland’s U.S. Customs House, in the reception hall.

Alliance Française du Maine’s website describes the organization’s mission as a non-profit corporation, committed to the promotion and appreciation of the francophone and Francophile community of Maine, …because “the French language has been part of Maine’s cultural fabric for more than 400 years”.

“Whether you are native speaker or a novice, we welcome everyone,” said Whittlesey.

 Régine Whittlesey

Régine Whittlesey, president of l’Alliance Francaise (center) with Juliana L’Heureux and Richard L’Heureux, on August 20, 2019, in the historic U.S. Customs House, on Fore Street in Portland.

Franco-Americans and all Maine citizens are appreciative of the “bienvenue” speech given by Governor Janet Mills during the ceremonies.  Here is the narrative of her historic speech.

Inauguration Celebration Alliance Françoise Du Maine

Hosted by Consul Général Arnaud Mentre

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Bonjour!

I am honored to join you in celebration of the Alliance Françoise du Maine.

Tonight, we recognize the bond between francophone regions around the world and their shared values of democracy, human rights, cultural diversity and solidarity.

It is a deep bond that spans the world from Canada to Cambodia and Quebec to Qatar.

It is a bond that lies at the heart of Maine.

Maine shares over 200 miles of border with Quebec. Our history, families, businesses, and values have been intertwined for centuries.

By 1930, roughly 1 million French Canadians settled in Maine and New England, powering our mills, creating new businesses, and starting family farms.

Today, one in every four Mainers identifies as Franco American and French is the second-most spoken language in our state.

Québécois accents, cuisine, and culture can be found in every town from Biddeford to Fort Kent.

Many of our hallmark institutions and beloved communities, including the town of Calais, bear French names and reflect Maine’s Francophone heritage.

Maine and Quebec’s economies are also deeply connected. In 2017, $916 million worth of goods were traded between Maine and Quebec. Quebec is Maine’s second largest export market.

The Quebec Government actively contributes to the Legislature’s FrancoAmerican Day in May where business is conducted in French and honorees are inducted to the Maine FrancoAmerican Hall of Fame.

I would like to thank Consul Général Arnaud Mentré for inviting me to join in this celebration.

France is among the world’s oldest nations, gifting to the world

the democratic ideals that have shaped governments, including our own, for centuries.

Our enduring trade relationship also powers shared economic growth. According to the United States Census Bureau, in the first six months of this year, the United States exported more than $19.4 billion and imported more than $29.6 billion in goods and services from France.

As one of the United States most faithful and long-standing allies on the world stage, our futures – much like our pasts – are interwoven.

We were not always as proud of this shared history and culture as we are today.

There was a time when speaking French in Maine was shameful outside of the home and children were taught to blend in by speaking English only at school.

Such bigotry could have cost Maine an important cornerstone of who we are as a state, but organizations and groups have worked to restore our pride in the French language and in our own history.

Groups like the Franco Center in Lewiston host events and language classes that bring together adults and children in appreciation of French culture and new Mainers from Francophone countries are sparking a renewed appreciation for the French language across our state.

Let all Maine residents celebrate the French language, culture, and contributions to their own history and to the history of our state.

Vive le France, Vive le Québec et Vive le Maine!

Merci beaucoup, Governor Janet Mills!

Bonne chance à l’Alliance Francaise du Maine!

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.