Basilica grounded in North Jay granite

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Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Lewiston is made up of carefully laid pieces of granite that were mined from a quarry in Jay. Stone from the quarry was used, in part, to build Grant’s Tomb in New York City, the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company building in Philadelphia and Portland City Hall.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

In a Lewiston Evening Journal news article published on Nov. 21, 1900, the Dominican order’s plans for a great, new church in the city that would rise to “almost cathedral proportions” was reported. The article said “the entire structure will be built of granite and will be entirely fire proof.”

Almost five years later, church members would still be attending Mass in “the Shed,” as the temporary wooden church structure was called.

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On Monday, April 17, 1905, the Evening Journal reported “Palm Sunday proved in weather, beautiful enough for Easter . . . the Catholics were marked by the ceremony of giving out the pieces of palm branches. All the local Catholic churches, save St. Peter’s, had secured the genuine palms to distribute. St. Peter’s congregation bore only sprays of spruce and hemlock.”

Not discouraged by their lack of palm branches or Masses in “the Shed,” they remained steadfast in their hope that in time, their beautiful church would be built “pour etre digne de la gloire de Dieu” or to the glory of God. They likely took solace in the eternal nature of their faith, described by their church’s patron saints. Centuries prior, the apostle Paul had reminded those gathered at Ephesus of “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Likewise, the apostle Peter would write to early followers: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.”

For the faithful in Lewiston on that Palm Sunday, it would be almost another 30 years before stones of granite would arrive from 30 miles away to create their church of “almost cathedral proportions.”

A SOLID FOUNDATION

Granite is omnipresent in Maine. The mountains and hills of its interior as well as its coastal islands and headlands are full of the igneous rock.

Granite, more durable than marble or limestone, became an important building material following the Civil War. It was used for paving blocks, memorials and dimensional stones for buildings.

In 1887, The Maine & New Hampshire Granite Corporation was formed, owning quarries in Redstone, New Hampshire, and North Jay, Maine. The Redstone location quarried both red and green granite, while the North Jay location quarried light grey stone. This gave the company a competitive advantage; records available at the Maine Historical Society document agents for the company provided granite quotes for buildings all over the United States.

The quarry in North Jay employed more than 300 and the operation included cutting sheds where the 5-foot-by-5-foot-by-9-foot quarry-sized blocks would be cut to the customer’s specifications. The cut stone would be transported by gravity track to the Maine Central Railroad’s tracks and shipped. A May 9, 1930 letter from a Maine & New Hampshire Granite Corporation representative states: “We make all granite shipments on gondola cars unless otherwise instructed by customer.” A gondola car is an open-topped car with low sides, used for moving high-density cargo.

Early promotional materials archived at the Maine Historical Society document how the Maine & New Hampshire Granite Corporation marketed the Maine-based granite as “North Jay White.” This stone was used, in part, to build Grant’s Tomb in New York City and the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company building in Philadelphia. And if you look closely at the stone of Portland City Hall, it looks very similar to that of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, as it, too, was built of North Jay White.

Legend has it that the Basilica was built with 515 loads of granite. Given that the North Jay company delivered by railroad gondola car, it’s breathtaking to think of the amount of noise and activity that surrounded the delivery of those stones once work began on the church’s exterior in 1934.

The North Jay quarry has been in almost-continuous operation since 1887, although there have been many changes in ownership as the stone industry has consolidated. Currently, the quarry is owned by a Quebec-based company, Polycor, which operates a granite curbing facility on the site.

To see the source of the Basilica’s granite exterior, the North Jay White Granite Park, located at 14 Woodman Hill Road in Jay, features a 1-mile hiking trail that leads to a view of the quarry and the mountains.

Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Lewiston is made up of carefully laid pieces of granite that were mined from a quarry in Jay, which has been in almost continuous operation since 1887.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

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.

If you have any memories, recollections or photographs of the Basilica you’d like to share please contact writer Julie-Ann Baumer at jabaumer@gmail.com or at 207-353-2616.

The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.

Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Lewiston is made up of carefully laid pieces of granite that were mined from a quarry in Jay.

A block of granite sits inside Swenson Curbing by Polycor’s plant in Jay, ready to be cut into curbing. The $4 million plant opened last year and is owned by Polycor Inc. of Canada, the biggest marble and granite producer in North America and one of the largest natural stone companies in the world. The North Jay quarry has been in almost continuous operation under various owners since 1887.

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