Easter and the Stations of the Cross

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Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

On Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday, Catholics commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is a part of the Passion (from the Latin for “suffering”), the name given to the last period of Jesus’ life from his entrance to Jerusalem to his crucifixion on Mount Calvary, which marks the central event in Christianity according to the gospel.

Roman Catholic and many Anglican churches have Stations of the Cross to honor this final, climactic event. The word “station” comes from the Latin “to pause” and at each station the devout pause, pray and meditate. The events blend both scripture and ancient oral tradition in the telling of Christ’s Passion narrative.

Today, this story is broken into 14 different stations, which mirror the original sites of Christ’s suffering as he carried the cross through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. The first station shows Jesus being condemned to death at Judgment Hall by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the last depicts Jesus being laid in his tomb.

In his Good Friday address on April 18, 2014, Pope Francis explained that the stations teach parishioners “that evil shall not have the last word, but love, mercy and forgiveness.”

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Though Franciscans are responsible for the Stations as they are today ordered and arranged, the origin of the Stations of the Cross dates back to fourth-century religious pilgrims. In 313 A.D., when emperor Constantine ended 250 years of persecution and opened Jerusalem to Christians, pilgrims journeyed to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus on Good Friday.

Written accounts of early Christian pilgrims were found in writings dating back to the fourth century. A woman from France named Egeria wrote of her pilgrimage in the 380s in a long letter now called “Itinerarium Egeriae” addressed to a group of her female friends back home. Upon entering the gates of Jerusalem, Egeria recorded the pilgrims’ reverence and devotion to their journey, writing: “All, to a man, both great and small, rich and poor, all are ready there, for on that special day not a soul withdraws from the vigils until morning.”

St. Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem from 386 to 418 A.D., also wrote of “crowds of pilgrims” from various countries visiting the city. His letters describe in great detail the people who stopped at each holy site to “follow the Way of the Cross.” As part of his religious work in the city, he founded a church and a hospice to accommodate the many trekking pilgrims.

According to St. Jerome’s writings, the customary pilgrimage route was the reverse of what it is today and started with Calvary and ended at Pilate’s Judgment Hall. In many places, the stops were approximations, as Roman armies had destroyed Jerusalem’s Old City in 70 A.D. and it was difficult to determine exact locations. The path is known as the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the “Sorrowful Way.”

In 1342, when Pope Clement VI gave custody of the Holy Land to the Franciscans, the order actively promoted devotion to Christ’s passion story and worked to formally establish the stations. The word “station” was not actually used until an English pilgrim named William Wey journeyed to the Holy Land in 1458 and 1462 and recorded his experience.

Over the centuries, religious wars between Christians and Muslim Turks often resulted in pilgrims being barred from the Holy Land. Re-creations were built as a devotional way for Christians to make the pilgrimage in heart and spirit. Early versions of the Stations of the Cross at the Dominican Friary at Cordova (early 1400s), Nuremberg (1468), Louvain (1505), Rhodes (1507) and Antwerp (1520) are today considered masterpieces and often replicated in style and design.

At first, there was no uniformity: Some depictions had as many as 42 stations and others as few as five. In 1731, Pope Clement XII allowed all churches to have stations and fixed the number at 14, where it stands today.

Most of the Catholic churches in America display the 14 Stations of the Cross. Because several of the traditional incidents portrayed in the stations are not found in scripture, Pope Paul VI approved a set of stations based on the Gospel in 1975, which starts with the Last Supper and ends with the Resurrection.

The Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul has four artistic depictions of the Stations of the Cross. One set lines the walls of the lower church, another the walls of the upper church, and a third set hangs in the hallway between the upper church and the Dominican Priory.

A fourth set original to the lower church currently rests in storage in the Dominican priory. An inscription on a marble placard with the set reads: “Chemin de Croix. Don des Demoiselles de la Paroisse. Careme de 1907,” which, translated from the French, means: “Way of the Cross. Gift of the young ladies of the Parish. Lent 1907.”

This statuary is part of the Basilica’s first Stations of the Cross. It was displayed in the lower church before the upper church was constructed. The Basilica now has four sets; the set above is currently in storage.

This Station of the Cross is part of a set that resides in the lower church. It came from St. Patrick’s Church in Lewiston.  

This pair of Stations of the Cross are part of the set in the upper church of the Basilica. The inscriptions are in French and have placards with the names of the patrons who made donations to pay for them. The crosses at the top of each station were covered for Lent.

This Station of the Cross is part of the set lining the walls upstairs in the back ambulatory of the Basilica. The set comes from St. Brendan’s Chapel in Biddeford Pool.

The Basilica’s four sets of Stations

There are four sets of Stations of the Cross at the Basilica:

Upstairs in the back ambulatory; the set comes from St. Brendan’s Chapel in Biddeford Pool.

Upstairs in the main church; the set is original to the upper church, is in French and has placards naming the patrons who made donations to pay for them.

Downstairs in the chapel; the set comes from St. Patrick’s Church in Lewiston.

In storage in the Dominican priory; this is the original set used in the lower church, remaining there until renovations were made to the area.

Stations of the Cross line the hall in the ambulatory that connects the Basilica’s upper church and the Dominican priory. The set comes from St. Brendan’s Chapel in Biddeford Pool.

One of the Basilica’s four sets of Stations of the Cross line the walls in the lower church. The set was originally in Saint Patrick’s Church in Lewiston.

The Basilica has four sets of the Stations of the Cross. One set — statuary that was original to the lower church — now rests in storage. An inscription with the statuary reads: “Chemin de Croix. Don des Demoiselles de la Paroisse. Careme de 1907.” Translated from the French, it means: “Way of the Cross. Gift of the young ladies of the parish. Lent 1907.”

Basilica sacristan Mark Labonte straightens one of the Stations of the Cross at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston. The Basilica has four sets. This set came from St. Brendan’s Chapel in Biddeford Pool

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.

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