Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
In most literature about the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the church and its place on the Lewiston-Auburn skyline is described as “iconic.” It’s an image, an emblem and a sign of meaning. For some, it may even be an object of uncritical devotion.
Over the years, the edifice has been photographed in many types of weather, from various angles, and at different times of day. It’s even been captured by a drone.
Mary Rice-DeFosse and James Myall, in their 2015 book “The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn,” note “. . . it remains today the single most recognizable landmark of the Lewiston-Auburn skyline, and its completion was a moment of triumph and vindication for the cities’ Franco-Americans.”
This “moment of triumph” was celebrated with a voluminous supplement to the Saturday, Oct. 22, 1938, French-language newspaper Le Messager. The paper, with offices at 223 Lisbon St. at the time, was published with various frequencies from 1880 to 1966.
In spite of the laudatory tone of the supplement, Le Messager was not an early advocate of the Dominican plan to build a massive new church in Lewiston. Rice-DeFosse and Myall called it “an enormously ambitious project” and the publishers of Le Messager demonstrated their skepticism.
In the years leading up to the demolition of the first St. Peter’s Church, they wrote editorial attacks against Father Mothon, then leading the charge for a new, grander church, and challenged his authority to tear down the existing red brick church. Le Messager’s editor, J. B. Couture, considered plans for a new church “a temple much too costly for our population.”
This attack against Father Mothon was only one element of a larger controversy brewing in 1906. Le Messager writers and others in the community wanted Dominicans from Canada to be in charge, rejecting Mothon and the brothers from France who had served the parish for the prior 25 years. Amid the controversy, the Dominican brothers launched their own French-language newspaper, Le Courrier du Maine, in July 1906. The paper was published by the church’s music director Henry F. Roy. But the Dominicans themselves were divided about the newspaper. Father Mothon’s resignation due to ill health further complicated matters. Publisher Roy suddenly found himself in Le Messager’s crosshairs as they published editorials critical of his work as choir director.
Precariously positioned between the newspaper and new Dominican leadership, Roy was let go from his position at the parish and his paper would cease publication five months after it began. He would write and publish a rebuttal to the Dominicans and Le Messager called “Le Dernier Mot” (The Last Word). Roy would later publish “Franco-Americans of the State of Maine” in 1915 and include a a sketch of Couture labeled “one of Maine’s most prominent Franco-American citizens.”
By October 1938 and the completion of what we now call the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the rift between the Dominicans and Le Messager was repaired. The Saturday, Oct. 22, 1938, voluminous souvenir edition of the paper featured articles about every facet of the parish, including a church history, numerous photographs from the demolition and construction, information about church organizations, and even a picture of the Dominican “gardens of yesteryear” and the monastery library.
Heavily filled with congratulatory advertisements, the souvenir edition was a “who’s who” of Lewiston-Auburn businesses, organizations and prominent citizens. The Bates Manufacturing Company and the Hill Manufacturing Company teamed up for a full-page ad that included words of praise and inspiration. “Such an imposing religious structure adds to the charm and dignity of the best standards of living in this city. We hope this work will inspire more spirit and courage, and make our city a better place to live and work.”
Other congratulations or “felicitations” were from local retailers Peck’s, F.X. Marcotte and Kresge’s, and a full-page ad by Louis Malo & Sons, the Lewiston-based company that built the church.
Many of the ads featured an image of the front of the church silhouetted against what appears to be the moon.
There’s a problems with the image. To face the entrance of the church, one must face near north, and any astute moon watcher will confirm that the heavenly orb never rises or sets in the north at this latitude.
Was it meant to be an optical illusion? An illustration? Although no definitive evidence survives, it could very well be primitive Photoshopping of the official church photograph. Like a saint’s halo in religious art and iconography, the moon backdrop enhanced the image and the ad copy.
By moonlight, starlight or drone, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul remains steadfast in its iconic place on the horizon.
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.