When Mill Jobs Brought Immigrants
When the textile mills of Lewiston saw a sharp rise in production beginning in the 1860s, the workforce was small and jobs aplenty. Migrant workers from the French-influenced regions of Canada—specifically Quebec and New Brunswick—came to the region in droves to fill the jobs. Many of these hard-working, eager French Canadians never meant to stay in America, but with jobs, money, and new-found hope, came permanent settlement. These people, rich in their French Canadian heritage, became known as Franco-Americans.
The second largest group to arrive in Lewiston and Auburn were the Irish. Having first come for construction work, after the explosion of mill jobs, they came in force. Fleeing their country due to years of a brutal and deadly famine, the work in mills and in local construction provided promise and hope to otherwise dim and desperate futures. Crossing the Atlantic to find freedom from hunger was a small price to pay to survive. Sadly, the power of propaganda began to work against them before many even arrived. Newspapers, the prime source of news stories, described Irish neighborhoods as “dirty” and painted the picture of an unsavory crew. While similar negativity was levied at the Franco-Americans, the Irish carried a heavy burden to overcome this negative image.
Proud Cultural Identities
Religion, Immigrants & American Sentiment
The founding of America was a result of those seeking religious freedom, therefore we might conclude that Americans always welcomed immigrants of all religious backgrounds. While neither the French Canadians nor the Irish came here for religious freedom — but instead for work and the promise of improved finances — these Catholics found the “land of the free” did not bring religious tolerance. Interestingly, while sharing one faith, these two groups did not seem themselves as united
The anti-Catholic sentiment of the time was at full-throttle, largely driven by Protestant leaders who viewed Catholicism as anti-American culture. Anti-Catholic riots occurred in Maine in the early 1800s, culminating in 1854 in Bath, Maine with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest. While the negativity was palpable, these persevering people held their religious identity. As the French arrived, there became a need for a French-speaking priest. At first, mass was held in the basement of Saint Joseph’s Church. Over time, funding and need enabled the construction of Saints Peter and Paul Church, now known as the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Today, it still offers mass in French.
In 2001, Lewiston saw a new infusion of immigrants: Somalian refugees. With a limited number of available jobs, vacant mills beginning to decay, and few young families moving in, this group was the catalyst for change and for turning around the local economy. The mayor, Laurier Raymond, in 2002 pleaded for the refugees to stop coming as the concern as to how to support them was high. Surprising many, the Somalians became the key catalyst for economic growth and not, as Raymond feared, a drain on the city’s social services. These immigrants opened new businesses and offered jobs. The community saw crime decrease, and the previously predominantly white city took on a new look. But, just as with other immigrants, religious tolerance was tested. As most are followers of the Muslim faith, some of these nearly 7,000 new immigrants have experienced pushback and discrimination focused on their religious beliefs.