Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
In spite of economic hardship and adversity across the country, 1934 and 1935 were blockbuster years for new construction in Lewiston and Auburn.
The area’s largest project was rising on the corner of Bartlett and Ash streets in Lewiston — Saints Peter and Paul Church, but other significant buildings were also underway. The main branch of the Lewiston Post Office and the Beth Abraham Synagogue were notable additions to the Twin Cities.
These two buildings, one financed publicly and the other privately, added to an improving economy following the Great Depression. They are also notable for their place in the architectural landscape of the Twin Cities.
The Lewiston Post Office is credited to James Wetmore, the director of the federal government’s Office of the Supervising Architect. This government agency oversaw the design of federal buildings from the 1850s to the late 1930s, and under Wetmore benefited from the Federal Employment Stabilization Act of 1931.
At its peak, the agency had a staff of almost 800 employees who were involved in the design and planning of post offices, courthouses and other federal buildings. The Ash Street post office, a colonial revival building with some classical elements, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built on a hill overlooking the Little Androscoggin River, Beth Abraham Synagogue’s construction in 1934 was not without difficulty. The local Jewish community’s first synagogue, located on the corner of Second and Cook streets in New Auburn, was destroyed by a fire on Jan. 31, 1918.
Following that loss, members raised money to rebuild the synagogue. Like the fundraising for Saints Peter and Paul, card parties, food sales and suppers were were among the efforts made to fund the building’s completion. But adversity would strike again, on May 15, 1933, when a fire destroyed 249 buildings in New Auburn including the synagogue.
Undaunted, a committee chaired by Harry Day formed and selected a new site for the synagogue. According to a June 23, 1934, Evening Journal article, the “land was purchased from the Foss estate.” The new synagogue, located on Laurel Avenue, was dedicated on June 24, 1934.
Meanwhile, by far the largest project of the time was rising skyward up Ash Street from the Lewiston Post Office. On Jan. 3, 1935, the Lewiston Evening Journal ran an article about the progress of construction on the church project.
A picture of the site taken from Ash Street showed wooden staging rising two stories, perpendicular to the steel columns in what would become the church’s nave. A large crane was installed in the soon-to-be-narthex and very little of the granite exterior was completed. There was no roof and the caption of the photograph said the building “will take two years to complete.”
An Evening Journal update on April 25, 1935, featured a front-page photograph showing some progress; the caption noted a sense of urgency, stating the exterior “must be completed” by Dec. 5, 1935 and “workmen are rushing the work . . . to keep within their contract.”
On July 24, 1935, the newspaper featured a picture taken from Bartlett Street, showing the structure now towering over the monastery, with the granite statue of St. Joseph installed in the northern-facing niche.
On Jan. 4, 1936, the Evening Journal featured a photograph of the church’s completed exterior, with the now-familiar twin towers and rose window. Some staging remained, but the building’s exterior was finished, including the roof.
The article said “work was delayed during the winter months of 1934-35, but progressed rapidly beginning in early spring.” In the span of less than one year, the entire exterior of the building had been completed. It would be another year before the church was completed and its first Mass held.
Scaffolding covers the Basilica as it was being built in 1935, its steel skeleton soon covered with granite.
A clipping from a Lewiston Evening Journal in 1935 detailing top construction projects in the Twin Cities.
Beth Abraham Synagogue on the corner of Main Street and Laurel Avenue in Auburn has one of the big construction projects of 1935 in the Twin Cities.
The Post Office on Ash Street in Lewiston was constructed in 1935, the second largest building project in the Twin Cities that year at an estimated cost of $175,000.
The Sun Journal is celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, which was completed in 1936-1937. For a year, we are taking a close look at the iconic structure, its history and even some of the people who built it. We will explore rooms behind the high altar, crawl along the catwalk, explore the cellars and rooftop carvings, and peek into drawers and cabinets in the sacristy. We’ll show you historical photos and compare them with current images of the basilica. We’ll also speak with basilica experts and comb through historical documents to uncover some of the 80-year-old church’s enduring myths and mysteries.
The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.