Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 20 September 2004.
Address: West Street, Biddeford, ME 04005
History of Muslims in BiddefordThe mill industry in the United States began recruiting employees in the Southern Mediterranean around 1900. Biddeford, ME hosted one of the main textile mills in New England, and mill owners were known to employ people who could create and weave various patterns and materials. So, the early 1900s brought to Southern Maine young Muslim men from Albania and Turkey.
The Turks were the first to arrive, and they worked in the York Manufacturing Co. in Saco (a neighboring town of Biddeford). The Albanians followed the immigration pattern and settled in the Pepperell Mills in Biddeford.
Coming to Maine without much money, not earning much in the mills, and wanting to send any extra earnings back home to their families, these young Turkish and Albanian men are believed to have stayed close to the mills. They even had their lodging in the mill campus.
As there was a group of Muslim men, they were able to maintain their religious obligations together, as a community. It is said that around 1915, the Muslim community was meeting for prayers. This signifies the formation of a very early mosque in Biddeford. While the exact location of the mosque is not verified, Charles Butler, Sr. of the Biddeford Historical Society and author of Images of America: Biddeford has solid speculation that the mosque met in the Pepperell Counting House on Main Street in Biddeford. The Pepperell Counting House was a part of the mill complex and was the building where mill workers were paid their wages. On the second floor of the building is a large meeting room which was used as a starter for various religious communities throughout the years. Butler suggests that it would make sense if the Muslims used this room as their prayer space since they spent all of their time living and working in the mills and even attending the Pepperell Technical School in the mill complex.
Muslim Burial GroundUnfortunately, in 1918, the Spanish Flu swept through the area, killing many people in Biddeford, including several Muslims. The Muslim community organized to purchase a large plot in Biddeford’s Woodlawn Cemetery so that their community members could be buried near one another.
When visiting the cemetery today, it is noticeable that the tombstones in this part of the cemetery face a different direction than other sections of the cemetery. The Muslim burial ground has headstones facing Mecca. Some of the headstones have an engraving of the crescent and star that often symbolizes Islam. Other grave markers note that the deceased was an “Albanian Muhamedan”—meaning, a follower of the Prophet Mohammed.
After losing many Muslims to the Spanish flu, the Muslim community’s dynamic changed, and the mosque in Biddeford was not able to survive. It seems there was not enough of a critical mass of Muslims to keep the mosque active. Some Muslims returned to their country of origin. Their grandchildren have been in contact with Mr. Butler of the Biddeford Historical Society to try to learn about their grandfathers’ experiences in Maine.
In fact, one person contacted Butler regarding his grandfather, Tella Cahn, who lived and worked in the Pepperell mills. According to Cahn’s grandson, Cahn was one of the founders of the Biddeford mosque. Eventually, he moved out of the mills and became a grocer on Franklin Street in Biddeford. In 1928, he moved back to Albania and became a Commissioner of the first School of Muhamedan in Albania.
In the past several years, various people have tried to research this early Muslim community in Maine. Because the young men stayed so close to the mills, even living there, it is hard to trace their history—most are not registered in city directories or tax records, many did not get the chance to become U.S. citizens before they died, and further, the local paper did not report much, if anything, about the community. Some who did survive the Spanish flu and stayed in the area married local women. With the pressures of the time to blend into “American” society, one might wonder if they did not continue with their practice of Islam once married to a, most likely, Christian woman.
There are death records of a few of the Albanian men who worked in the mills and remained in the Biddeford area. While there is no mention of their religious background, the records do note that the deceased were born in Albania. One death record even notes that the deceased was a member of the York County Albania society, which may signify that the few Albanians continued to gather around their ethnic culture rather than the religion of their upbringing.
The Pepperell Counting House, the location of the Biddeford mosque, still stands today (now owned by WestPoint Stevens, Inc.). A current picture of the building can be seen in the photographs link at the top of the page.
Note: Thank you to Charles Butler, Sr. of the Biddeford Historical Society who provided research time and information for this profile.