In the last quarter of the 19th century, some 350,000 of men and women from Quebec Province in Canada made their way to the mill towns of New England, including those mill towns along the Saco River in Maine. These Québécois established their own French-Canadian settlements among those of the Irish Catholic and Yankees, and they set up their own educational, political, religious and service institutions.
In the 1930s, Father Arthur Decary, pastor of St. Andre's Parish in Biddeford, turned to the Franciscan Order in Montreal to establish a high school and junior college - a college séraphique - to educate young Franco-American men, descendants of the Québécois, in the tradition of their own heritage and culture, especially with an eye toward the priesthood.
The Franciscans realized Decary's vision at a location at the mouth of the Saco River in Biddeford, on the same spot where European explorers had first sighted a village of the indigenous people of the Wabenaki.
Franciscan High School
On May 1, 1939, ground was broken for the new high school, and on Nov. 15, the College Séraphique opened its doors with 14 ninth graders. The cost of attending was $200 a year, which included "board, room, tuition, books, sports equipment, and transportation to and from the railroad station."
The first class of 14 boys studied a strictly liberal arts curriculum. It included religion, French, Latin, English, algebra, general science, physics, music and chant. Four years later, in the 12th grade, they studied apologetics, Latin, French, English, history and trigonometry.
The College Séraphique continued to grow. By 1945-46, the first year with students enrolled in all six classes, the total student population was 88. By graduation 1950, the enrollment had risen to 115 in the high school and 20 in the junior college.
Four-Year Liberal Arts College
Although by 1952, the College Séraphique had graduated young men who went on to enter the priesthood, the Franciscans decided to transform the institution into a four-year liberal arts college, which became St. Francis College. Its mission was the preparation of young Catholic men to become part of the larger dominant culture.
The Franciscans received a state charter to grant a college degree in 1953. For the first few years they continued the high school, but in 1958 they began to phase it out. By 1961, the College was solely a four-year post-secondary institution, and in 1966, it was fully accredited by the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.
St. Francis College built on but also expanded far beyond the curriculum of the college séraphique. In 1960 for instance, the curriculum consisted of four divisions - humanities; mathematics and the natural sciences; social science, education and business; and theology and philosophy. Despite all the changes, the Franciscan and Catholic identity remained strong.
In the 1960s, St. Francis began holding a series of symposia open to the community at large, addressing contemporary issues, such as "The Christian in the Modern World," in response to Vatican II; and "The Negro and the Quest for Identity," which brought to the campus many of the nation's civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Stokely Carmichael and Dorothy Day.
By 1959, enrollments had reached 152, and in 1967, women were fully admitted for the first time. Enrollment continued to swing upward, reaching its peak in 1969-70 with 730 students.
From 1968-1974, however, the College underwent many changes. The Franciscans in Montreal decided to withdraw from administration and control of the College, turning its ownership over to a board of lay people. Also during the 1970s enrollments at the College and at small liberal arts colleges throughout the Northeast began to drop with many colleges closing their doors.
The Creation of the University of New England
But St. Francis College transformed itself to survive. It redefined its mission around programs in the biological sciences, human services, and business administration, and it also began discussions with the New England Foundation for Osteopathic Medicine, discussions that led to the founding of the New England College of Osteopathic Medicine on the campus in 1978, and the creation of the University of New England by combining St. Francis College and the College of Osteopathic Medicine into one institution.
Two decades later, in 1996, the University merged with Westbrook College in Portland, one of Maine's oldest institutions of learning, founded in 1831.
Three Decades of Growth
Since 1978, when it had 36 medical students and 396 St. Francis College undergraduates, the University of New England has grown into a more diverse institution with two distinctive campuses in Maine and one in Tangier, Morocco, more than 9,000 students, and state-of-the-art educational and research facilities, such as the Harold Alfond Center for Health Sciences and the Marine Science Education and Research Center.
Advancing its focus on research, the University has created several innovative Centers of Excellence for Research and Scholarship, including the Center for Land-Sea Interaction: Human, River and Ocean Health; the Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences; the Center for Global Humanities; and the Center for Community and Public Health.
U.S. News & World Report has ranked the University of New England among the best regional universities in the Northeast. The College of Osteopathic Medicine has been recognized for its excellence in geriatric, rural and primary care education.
In 1978 when St. Francis College and the New England College of Osteopathic Medicine combined to become the University of New England, some thought the new name a little grandiose. Jack Ketchum, president of the new institution, said "We'll grow into it," and he was right — we did.
*Taken in part from Shaping a Future: The Founding of the University of New England by Eleanor H. Haney.