Basement holds clues to history

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Celebrate the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Few people have been in the cellar and sub-cellar of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, an underground area that head sacristan Mark Labonte jokingly referred to as “the dungeon,” but it’s a fascinating tour into the church’s history.

The dim, unfinished space, under portions of both the Basilica and the Dominican priory is made up of smaller rooms and hallways. It is mostly used to house relics and church iconography the parish has collected over the last 80 years, yet also provides insight into the architectural design of the two buildings.

To get to the cellar, you enter through a small, unobtrusive door on the ground floor of the Basilica. It opens into a narrow passage. A ramp slopes slightly down into the dusty darkness. You move through patterns of air — warm to cold to warm.

The first room on the right of the long hallway marks the exact spot where the back of the basilica and the Dominican priory intersect. “They are kind of integrated,” Labonte said.

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“This is probably my favorite part of the whole building,” he said.

The room is full of forgotten objects, some broken and some made useless by the passage of time. A chair sits quietly in the corner. “You can see where stonework and brickwork come together,” Labonte explained, showing how the stonework, which comprises the architectural core of the Basilica, meets the brickwork of the priory in this otherwise unobtrusive room.

“At one point in time there was a study done to see if we could feasibly take this down (the priory) and just get rid of it and make more parking,” he said, “But it’s interwoven with the back of the church, so there are some structural issues. There were times when we had looked at selling it, selling it to a religious order or someone that could make good use of it and keep it connected to the back of the church. Obviously, there would have to be some changes,” he explained.

In fact, feasibility studies determined the Basilica and priory are interwoven like Siamese twins and are nearly impossible to detach safely from each other.

Asbestos and lead paint are also concerns, but because of the cost, there are no plans for a major retrofit or renovations. “We’re still looking at trying to do something with it,” Labonte said.

Until then, the cellars remain as they are.

“When we’re in the cellar there’s one, two, three floors above us. And the attic,” Labonte said, counting off levels.

The unused space is handy for Labonte because he uses it for storage. “There’s not a lot of storage in the Basilica. I use the second floor and this floor to store stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot of unique stuff down here.”

What kind of things?

“There is marble from former side altars stored down here,” he said. “These are old architectural pieces that are no longer used. (Here is) a piece of the old brass communion rail. ”

Farther into the cellar, he opened another door off a hallway. “This is probably the most unique room in the whole cellar,” he said. “This is the old wine cellar.” The wine cubbies sit empty, but it’s easy to imagine the room stacked with bottles that the parish would use for Mass at the height of occupancy, when the priory was housing up to 26 Dominican friars and the Basilica’s pews held thousands of parishioners weekly, attending up to nine Masses on any given Sunday.

Below the cellar is the sub-cellar. Rickety wooden stairs lead down another level. The air here was uncomfortably warm. That’s because the sub-cellar houses the two-boiler system that heats both structures.

“We used to have three different boilers in here instead of a system for heating the priory and the church. The duct work is very old,” Labonte said.

Labonte pointed out another architectural intersection. “There’s a transitional piece. You can see how it’s hard to tear down one building without it affecting the other.”

Standing in the center of the sub-cellar, “you’re at the lowest level in the church,” Labonte noted. “You’re in the Basilica. Over here, the Dominican priory.”

The cellar and sub-cellar are labyrinthine spaces, and it’s often difficult to grasp where one stands in relation to the upper floors. “The priory was built first, and as they built the church, the two were merged,” Labonte said.

It’s obvious that laying the foundation for the church was a monumental task, involving the laying and aligning of huge stones and, according to Father Antonin Plourde’s 100-year history of the parish, dynamiting of the bedrock in 1905.

Somewhere, water was dripping, and the sound echoed hollowly. Narrow, slatted windows near the ceiling cast hard rectangles of light around the cavernous stone space. “See that window right there? That’s gotta be in the priory somewhere,” Labonte guessed. “I see daylight.”

Off the sub-cellar is another brick staircase that leads to a workshop. Tools hang on a wall. Layers of dust cover some things, as if someone left mid-project years ago and never returned.

“It’s a unique building. A lot of character to it,” said Labonte.

This room in the basement of the Basilica was used as the wine cellar for the priory and the church, but hasn’t stored wine for many years.
This narrow brick stairwell is the only access point to a ground-level workshop in the priory.
A ramp in this narrow corridor leads to the sub-cellar.
A sink in a dark corner of the sub-cellar hasn’t been used for decades.
These doors were once used in the Basilica, according to church head sacristan Mark Labonte, but were replaced years ago. Now, they lean against a wall in the sub-cellar.
Basilica head sacristan Mark Labonte holds a lamp being stored in one of the many rooms in the basement of the Basilica.
Head sacristan Mark Labonte looks down one of the bricked hallways in the cellar of the Basilica.
An aging chair and desks fill one of the numerous rooms in the basement of the Basilica. This room sits at the intersection of the Basilica and the priory, which was the living quarters for the Dominican priests years ago. On the right is the distinctive Basilica foundation stonework; on the left is the brickwork that distinguishes the priory building’s basement walls.
Church head sacristan Mark Labonte uses his cellphone light to look around the interior of one of the rooms in the basement of the Basilica.
This closeup of one of the storage rooms in the basement of the Basilica shows the large stones used in the foundation of the church, right, and the brickwork installed on the left as the foundation for the priory, which is attached to the church and once housed the Dominican priests assigned to the church.

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