The high altar at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston is unique and considered one of the most beautiful in the region.
‘The grandest in this area’: The high altar
When you enter the Basilica, your eye is naturally drawn to the front of the church and to the area of the altar. To Catholics, the altar is the center and focal point of the church. According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (2nd edition) the altar is where “the sacrifice of the cross is made present under sacramental signs.”
The Basilica has two altars, which is not uncommon in Catholic churches today. On the minor altar, closer to the congregation, the priest celebrates the Eucharist, during which worshippers share in the memory of Christ’s sacrifice through the consecration and consumption of bread and wine.
Directly in back of this, rising several steps above, is the high altar and the tabernacle, the latter containing consecrated wafers not used during the Mass.
The Basilica’s exquisite and unique high altar was installed in the upper church in September 1938. A photograph caption in an October 1938 souvenir insert in the Lewiston-based French-language newspaper Le Messager reported, “The altars of Italian marble have to be seen to appreciate their true beauty. Photographs do them poor justice. Of simple design, the altars are in white marble at the top, their tables are in buff color to match the sanctuary railing, and the columns that support the altar table are of marble resembling rose quartz. The tabernacle doors are of gold, and in the main altar the lamb that forms the center design in the lower part of the altar is of gold against a background of bright blue. The altar columns are Corinthian as are the big columns in the basement.”
According to Basilica head sacristan Mark Labonte, the tabernacle doors and the lamb of God design are both made of polished brass, not gold.
But the Basilica’s high altar — with its “double-sided” construction — is certainly unique, with a tabernacle on each side, allowing services on both sides. The tabernacles were a gift from F.X. Bilodeau, a member of the parish. One tabernacle faces the church congregation, the other faces the Dominican choir. Le Messager described it this way: “The altar is double, which will make it possible to celebrate the Mass for the benefit of the parishioners in general and also at the same time on the opposite side without the faithful knowing it.”
Labonte noted, “There are very few double-sided altars. It is one of the most unique, and the grandest in this area.”
An altar stone is built into each side of the altar’s table, containing a relic of a martyr. In the event the altar was to be moved, the two relics would be removed.
The crucifix at the center of the high altar is also two-sided and is original to the 1938 installation, as are the six candlesticks.
The prior minor altar was made of wood, but during the 2005 renovation, it was replaced with one of marble, mirroring the style of the high altar.
When the Basilica’s upper church first opened in 1938, a visitor or parishioner would have seen the high altar in the center in the church and two side altars behind the communion rails. The addition of the minor altar stemmed from Vatican II changes in the early 1960s. Following Vatican II, the priest faced the congregation while celebrating Mass on the minor altar instead of facing the high altar with his back to the church. The altar rail was also removed.
David Rioux, who grew up attending Holy Family Church, remembers the first time he saw the Basilica’s high altar prior to the Vatican II changes in the late 1950s. He said “looking directly at the high altar and its surrounds, I was struck by its positioning. Though similar in its general characteristics to other altars I had seen, it was not enclosed or built against a wall but free-standing, like a great wedding cake island in the midst of the arched wonders around it.
“I soon perceived that there was a large space behind the altar, that there were mezzanine choir stalls on the side walls behind it and organ pipes high in the corners formed by the side and rear walls. . . . I came to understand that there was an altar behind the main altar, that it faced in the opposite direction, and that there were pews facing it. In short, there was a whole chapel with its altar, nave, organ and choir.”
What Rioux was seeing was the Basilica’s Dominican choir, a place where the Dominican friars in the 1900s would gather and pray. It remains a special place today, with carved wooden seats, highly ornate woodwork, plaster carvings and statuary, and the other side of the Basilica’s unique high altar.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Rioux said. “Fast upon the heels of my amazement was the absolute conviction of the beauty and fittingness of this arrangement; no matter how foreign it was to a young boy living in a small mill town that . . . had erected an edifice of such piety and beauty to God . . . I never saw anything more gloriously divine than the high altar at Saints Peter and Paul’s.”
The other side of the Basilica’s high altar is also an altar, servicing the worshippers in the church’s Dominican choir.
This is another view of the Basilica’s double-sided altar from the Dominican choir side.
The cross and dark candles on the main altar can be seen in the foreground, while the cross and candles on the high altar dominate the photo.
This statue rests in a niche on the right of the rear alter, which can only be seen from inside the Dominican choir at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
A detail of the back of the high altar at the Basilica.
A closeup of one of the candles on the high altar.
This is a view of the high altar from the Dominican choir side, looking through a chair.
This statue rests in a niche on the left of the rear alter, which can only be seen from inside the Dominican choir.
Share your memories
ABOUT THIS SERIES: 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.