Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul: A final offering

0

Julie-Ann Baumer inside Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Last Sunday, Oct. 22, was a beautiful autumn day. The temperatures were comfortable, the sun pleasantly warm and the sky bright blue. I cut a bouquet of late zinnias and rang the bronze bell on my garden fence. I bought it in July at a foundry in Prospect Harbor when I was researching the Basilica’s bells. It’s hard to believe I climbed the bell tower and wrote about it 11 articles ago.

I knew this day would arrive, though, the day I wrote my last story for this series. I started thinking about it back in July when I bought the bell. Sometimes I wondered if my neighbors could hear it when I’d ring it to summon up some inspiration or insight. They never said anything if they did.

Advertisement

If I could write the Basilica series over again . . .

I would have started my research at the Dominican archives in Montreal. Located there is a 17-volume series chronicling the history of the Dominican Order from 1881 to 1976 and it includes correspondence about the Lewiston parish.

Hindsight is 20/20, so they say, but if I could do it over again, I would have studied French more diligently in high school and college. Many of the Basilica’s archival documents — like the material in Montreal, and Antonin Plourde’s “Cent ans de vie paroissiale SS. Pierre et Paul de Lewiston,” and the Lewiston newspaper Le Messager — were in French. Plourde’s history would become my research “bible” and I relied on Google translator, my French dictionary and my bilingual mother to figure it all out. (Thanks, Mom!)

Stories I wanted to write (but I ran out of time) . . .

While reading Le Messager at the Maine State Library, I found a picture of a miniature Basilica built by Alphonse Monier for one of the parish fundraising bazaars. The Oct. 24, 1938, special edition of Le Messager featured photos of the wooden replica and of Monier, who would have been 19 at the time. The photo caption said “This little masterpiece is now property of the parish.” I never found anyone who had seen the miniature nor knew of its current whereabouts. Maybe it’s in Montreal.

Time being no object, I would have spent months researching parish groups and organizations like Les Petites Chanteurs de Saint Pierre, a youth choir of local renown that appeared on television on WMTW in 1954. Or the Holy Name Society, which had 1,139 members in 1946. And Camp Tekakwitha, located on Androscoggin Lake in Leeds. The camp is still there, and although it’s no longer run by the parish, it’s a “French-speaking holiday camp” run by a Quebec corporation, according to the Camp de Vacances website. This would have been a great segue to sharing stories about the current organizations and events at the Basilica.

I ran out of time for a history of the distinguished organists who once graced the Casavant’s console and continue to do so today. If you haven’t been to any of the Basilica’s 2017 free organ concerts, you have one last opportunity this year. On Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. French composer and organist Franck Besingrand will perform. Closer to home, Lewiston’s own Connie Cote was a talented organist and played the Casavant from the age of 11 until she was 21. Rumor has it the former organ prodigy is turning 90 in November and will be feted not once, but twice, at the Gendron Franco Center. More information about these events will be featured in the days to come, I’m sure.

Oh, and the fundraising! I could have written three or four stories about the parish’s long history of generosity. From the groundbreaking of the first church in 1872 until the latest renovation completed in 2002, members have continued to support the church, either by direct donation or naming gifts. A walk through the upper church reveals some of those donors and their long-term benevolence. And there were fund drives.

One day while doing research at L/A College’s Franco-American Collection, I found an undated photo and article about one of those fund drives. Featured in the photo were both Father Marchand and Father Drouin. The presence of those priests and the cut of Louis Phillipe Gagne’s suit suggest it might be 1940. The first paragraph of the article read, “Between now and Saturday . . . parish leaders in Lewiston hope to raise $15,000, with which to renovate the crypt of the church at Bartlett and Ash streets. This part of Lewiston’s beautiful church has long been in need of interior renovation and repair of floor and pews, but this was delayed because the parish was busy completing the church construction.”

Which leads me to the most intriguing story . . .

The construction of the lower church, or the crypt, continues to fascinate me. I am not convinced architect Noel Coumont made a mistake in the digging of the foundation or committed some heinous engineering error, either one resulting in the Basilica’s unusual tilt. The Coumont mystery remains unsolved, but evidence of his talent shone through when I wrote the “sights unseen” feature about the lower church’s skyward architecture. I’ve spent hours and hours in the lower church. One Saturday afternoon, I thought I was locked in a back stairwell and had to call sacristan Mark Labonte. “Are you in the vicinity?” I asked? No, he was in Boston, but he assured me I was not locked in. He provided me with directions on how to exit the building. “See,” he said, “I can do my sacristan duties remotely.” Funny guy.

Lucky moments . . .

Discoveries about the Basilica were sometimes a matter of luck and perseverance. I left a lot of voice messages that started with “Hi, I’m a freelance writer working on an article about the Basilica and . . .” Sometimes I’d get a return call and sometimes not. The most fortuitous returned call was from Alan Hahnel, president of Hahnel Brothers Co. in Lewiston. Not only did Hahnel provide me with great information about the slate roof his grandfather’s company installed on the Basilica, but he just happened to have a fantastic photograph taken from high atop the building.

Favorite stories . . . 

I loved researching each story I wrote, but one of the most fun involved confirming that it really was Roger Bouffard’s young hair on the replica of the Infant of Prague statue. Monsieur Bouffard, a local treasure, is also a good sport, non?

Learning more about Louis Malo, the contractor whose local company built the upper church, and his legacy inspired me.

As for finally learning the provenance of the Basilica’s wooden statues after tracing them from Quebec to Germany to Belgium and finally Switzerland? That was a B-I-N-G-O moment.

And how can I not love the Basilica brides feature? I could have done a whole supplement on this topic. But perhaps the sweetest part of writing that story was the phone message I got from Dot Galgovitch, 1946’s lovely newlywed. She told me: “We got a terrific response from a lot of friends everywhere. Thank you so much for letting us know we had so many friends.” I’m wiping a little tear from the corner of my eye right now.

Funniest thing Mark Labonte said . . .

I owe a debt of gratitude to sacristan Labonte, who went above and beyond the call of his unpaid duties and provided me with almost unlimited access to the Basilica, often at a moment’s notice. He had a sense of humor about it, too. One Saturday in July, photographer Andree Kehn, writer Steve Collins and I accompanied Labonte up the many stairs to the bell tower. As we reached the top, I expressed disappointment and sadness that the bells were no longer rung and that the sound neighbors hear is a carillon. To which Labonte quipped, “We used to have dinosaurs too, but we don’t miss them.”

In closing . . .

I first remember seeing the Basilica from my French-Canadian grandmother’s Pierce Street living room window. It was Christmas Eve in the early 1970s and little me looked out on the night sky. Electric stars hung from the mighty church’s spires. Do you remember them? They mesmerized me and I imagined an angel lived in each spire. Thanks to photographer Russ Dillingham and his drone, I know those stars are still up there on the roof, just waiting for their angels.

My child-like awe of this amazing structure hasn’t waned one bit in the long months I’ve spent researching and writing. There were a few moments when I felt like I was on a long and exhausting pilgrimage. Like Israel Shevenell, Biddeford’s first French Canadian who walked 200 miles from Quebec to Biddeford in 1845, I just kept one foot in front of the other.

In my humble opinion, this collaborative series added new and important information to the narrative of “the church built with nickels and dimes.” It was my honor and pleasure to add to this narrative and highlight what once mattered to Lewiston’s French-Canadian ancestors. I’m sure I’ll be researching and writing about it for years to come. Thank you for reading.

Julie-Ann Baumer inside Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Julie-Ann Baumer inside Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Julie-Ann Baumer inside Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

The author was captivated as a youth by the large shining stars she saw during Christmastime on the Basilica’s towers from her grandmother’s living room on Pierce Street in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

ABOUT THIS SERIES: The Sun Journal has been celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, which was completed in 1936-1937. For a year, we have been taking a close look at the iconic structure, its history and the people who designed and built it. We’ve written about the bell towers and the basement, the roof, the architecture and even the contents of closets and drawers in the sacristy. We’ve displayed historical photos and brand-new photos from angles never taken before. We’ve spoken with basilica experts and historians, and combed through archival documents to uncover some of the 80-year-old church’s enduring myths and mysteries. The entire series has been archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.

Alexandre Louis Mothon, front center, the first Dominican curate or priest of Saint Peter’s Church in 1881, is surrounded by the first group of Dominicans that came to Lewiston. (Submitted Photo)

A view of the bell tower in the Basilica. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

On June 25, 1946, newlyweds Dorothy “Dot” and Alfred “Breezy” Galgovitch posed happily on the granite steps of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Dot and Breezy are still married after 71 years and live in Lisbon Falls. (Submitted Photo)

Henry Hoffman, right, holding the fedora, stands at the top of a spire of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in this 1950 photo, 168 feet above the ground. Hoffman was the treasurer at that time for Hahnel Brothers roofers of Lewiston. The workers, who are unidentified in the photo, were installing lead-coated copper caps on the original limestone spires to prevent further deterioration caused by pollution from coal-burning in the city. There are eight spires on the building. (Submitted Photo)

This view from directly above the Basilica shows the structure’s top section, which faces the brick monastery, tilting slightly to the left.(Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

The Oct. 24, 1938, special edition of Le Messager French-language newspaper of Lewiston featured photos of a wooden replica of the Basilica by Alphonse Monier, who would have been 19 at the time. The photo caption read, “This little masterpiece is now property of the parish.” Its fate is unknown. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Les Petites Chanteurs de Saint Pierre, a youth choir of local renown that appeared on television on WMTW in 1954. (Submitted Photo)

Roger Bouffard, who as a 6-year-old portrayed St. John the Baptist in the annual St. John’s Day festivities in 1953 in Lewiston, donated some of his hair for this replica of the Infant Jesus of Prague statue that now rests at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

The author bought this bell in July at a foundry in Prospect Harbor as she was doing research on the Basilica’s bells. The bell hangs in the author’s yard. (Julie Baumer/Sun Journal)

The large, beautiful and complex Casavant organ, whose sound has been described as “royally dignified,” fills the back of the Basilica. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Advertisement