Inside the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul 'nerve center'

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Head Sacristan Mark Labonte looks through one of the holy books used at Masses that are kept in the sacristy at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston. Before each Mass, Labonte opens the books to the appropriate passages that will be read.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

If you ask Mark Labonte his position at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, he would convincingly tell you he is “the church mouse” or the lowliest of participants in the weekly Mass.

His humility aside, Labonte is the linchpin of the Basilica’s Masses. For a Sunday High Mass, for instance, you will find him in the sacristy — the control center of the church — hours before Mass making preparations, and later, during Mass, find him in a recessed corner near a side altar, watching and ensuring it’s celebrated with reverence and sacredness.

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High Mass, or Missas Solemnis, is a more elaborate Mass. Incense is used and parts of the Mass are sung. In other words, the preparations are many for the person in charge. The High Mass was established at the Basilica by Monsignor Marc Caron 9 years ago. Labonte says the church is “the only place a High Mass is being said every Sunday in the entire state. The High Mass was a regular part of the schedule prior to Vatican II.

“When you bring back the old ceremonies and the old way of doing things, it changes the ambiance of the Mass,” he continued. “People are more prayerful. The space, the artwork, the ceremonies of the Mass, the incensing, the candles, the lights, and the procession. They all lend to an atmosphere. By doing that, holiness attracts, and it has attracted a huge number of people,” Labonte said, many of them coming from outside the parish.

Whether high or low Mass, the work of the head sacristan — Labonte’s official title — is essentially the same, and it is centered in the sacristy. Labonte calls the small but important room “the nerve center” of the church. Here — in a room to the left of the Dominican choir at the Basilica — all preparations for the Mass begin and end.

Early sacristies have been found in temples pre-dating Christianity; the Old Testament books of Chronicles reference the side chambers of Solomon’s temple. Archeological evidence of early churches in the Mediterranean basin show multiple connected spaces.

The role of a sacristan, too, is mentioned in works by early church writers, such as the fourth century theologian, Jerome, and sixth century’s Pope Gregory the Great.

During Jesus Christ’s ministry, he would sometimes visit private homes to teach and preach. Women would arrange the house for his visit. In the New Testament book of Saint Luke, Jesus is welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha who is “distracted by much serving” while her sister Mary listens to his teaching.

Two thousand years later, church sacristans continue in the humble work of making sure the tools for worship are always available.

Labonte’s family connection

Labonte, a Maine native and lifelong Catholic, spent some of his youth living in Canada. He was an altar server at Saint-Ursule Church in Saint Foye, Quebec, and volunteered as a lector at St. Edmunds Church in Montreal when he was in high school.

After returning to Maine and starting his own family, he attended St. Joseph’s Church, where his mother, Eva, was the sacristan. “I helped her out. That’s how it started. She fell into the role, then she started teaching me,” Labonte said, “but first I started as a collector, then a reader, then decorating, and, finally, I helped my mother with the sacristy work in the last four to five years that Saint Joe’s was open.”

Labonte spent more than 16 years at the church. There just might be a genetic disposition for sacristan work in Labonte’s family; one of his cousins is a sacristan at St. Rose of Lima Church in Jay.

When St. Joseph’s closed in 2009, Monsignor Caron asked Labonte to take over as head sacristan at the Basilica.

Labonte’s first responsibility is to make sure each Mass at the Basilica is “covered” by a sacristan who opens the church. Then, work in the sacristy includes making sure bread and wine is in place and all the necessary vessels for the Eucharistic celebration are clean and ready. Vestments for the priests and the altar servers must be available and the altar candles lit. At the end of the Mass, the sacristan maintains order in the sacristy and returns all these elements back into place for the next Mass.

Currently, there are eight sacristans at the Basilica keeping things humming. Funeral Masses have a dedicated sacristan and assistant; when not serving at funerals, they assist at other Masses and ceremonies. Labonte schedules three sacristans for each Sunday’s high Mass “because there is so much to do.”

The head sacristan also recruits and trains the altar servers. The Sunday 10 a.m. High Masses are very popular. A regular group of altar servers attend every week and Labonte doesn’t need to schedule them because they are so regular. “If you show up we’ll put you to work,” he said. He has had up to 12 altar servers at the Sunday morning Mass.

Going by the book

The Roman Catholic Missal, a book that outlines the instructions and prayers required for each Mass of the year, is only one of Labonte’s guides. He always confers with the presiding priest before each Mass to determine any adjustments that may be needed.

“A priest should be able to walk into the church and not need to worry about whether everything is ready for him to say Mass. It’s the sacristan’s job to make sure it is,” said Labonte.

Because of the church’s status as a basilica, there are often visiting priests and even the bishop that the head sacristan must prepare for. “When a (visiting) priest shows up in a church, he (usually) doesn’t just attend the Mass, he’s concelebrating,” said Labonte, which requires him to make sure there are enough vestments and altar vessels for the added priest.

“When the bishop shows up, I then take my orders from the priest assigned to the bishop and not just from my pastor,” Labonte explained. “The bishop’s priest becomes the ‘emcee for the Mass.’” Labonte then assists the bishop’s priest, including making sure they have the things they need for the Mass. (Bishop Deeley will celebrate a Red Mass at the Basilica on Friday, Oct. 13, at 11 a.m.)

Also as part of his position, Labonte keeps tabs on the inventory for a long list of items, including communion hosts, wine, incense, charcoal and linens. Those altar candles that never seem to burn down? They’re actually a metal shell with a spring-loaded beeswax candle inside. They burn up and not down. Labonte has to order these too. He oversees a variety of seasonal and liturgical decorations. He trains and schedules others who assist with the Masses.

Labonte has assistants, and one of their many roles is to help with the laundry; one assistant handles the altar servers’ garments and another is responsible for laundering the other linens. Some of the altar linens require special handing due to their contact with communion bread and wine, which become the body and blood of Christ. Labonte takes the priests’ vestments to the cleaners.

The upper church of the Basilica actually has two sacristies. The one behind the left wall of the Dominican choir, on the west or Blake Street side of the church, is the main sacristy; a mirror image space exists on the right side of the Dominican choir. This second sacristy has never been used. “The closets are not original to the room. It’s not a double sacristy. It would have been a place for vestments and storage,” said Labonte, noting it continues to be used for storage today.

Labonte said each Prince of Peace parish church in Lewiston has its own sacristan. Anne Servidio and Martha Adams are Labonte’s counterparts at Holy Family and Holy Cross, respectively, and while their general responsibilities are similar, each church has unique features.

Labonte and his assistants in the sacristy are all volunteers; there is no pay. Labonte said he once jokingly asked Father Cartwright for a raise. “I asked him to double my pay. He said ‘No,’ but he told me ‘The death benefits are awesome.’”

Dozens of stolls are stored in the sacristy.

Remembering Brother Albert

Some parishioners at the Basilica may remember Brother Albert, the Dominican brother who served as sacristan in the 1950s and 1960s. The number of priests at the monastery and the many Masses said in the upper and lower church during the week and on weekends created the need for a full-time sacristan — a job given to Brother Albert, as he was called.

On any day of the week, there could be six High Masses and possibly 12 Low Masses. There were also funerals, weddings and benediction services. Each one required at least one, but generally two, altar servers.

Alice Bisson-Barnes, a former parishioner and altar server from 1955 to 1959, wrote recently and remembered Brother Albert as someone who “smoked like a chimney but was forever cheerful.”

“He had a memory like an encyclopedia,” Bisson-Barnes said. “I cannot emphasize enough how well organized the man was and how he ran ‘the front of the store’ for those priests. He seemed to always be there, busy or smoking.”

Brother Albert knew everything about the elements of the Mass. According to Bisson-Barnes, “He did it invisibly. We could be out there in the limelight . . . drop something or make a mistake . . . (and) his hand would be reaching out with exactly what you might need. I cannot begin to tell you what could go wrong, but if it did, Brother Albert was there to save the day.”

One rare but serious accident was spilled consecrated wine, considered the blood of Christ. There are very specific guidelines for cleaning it up. Bisson-Barnes related: “I saw it happen only once in my entire life. And when it did, Brother Albert was on the scene almost before the blood hit the marble and it was gone according to the requirements. That guy was a treasure deserving of a Basilica in which to work.”

— By Julie-Ann Baumer

One of three statues that were found in storage were cleaned and refurbished and now reside in the sacristy. This one is of Mary.

A large cabinet in the sacristy holds dozens of drawers and storage space for many of the items used during a Mass.

An ornately carved box that Father Nadeau found in storage sits on a desk that was also reclaimed and now resides in the sacristy.

Mark Labonte recovered these chairs with leather. They go with the matching desk that Father Nadeau found in storage. All now reside in the sacristy.

One of three statues that were found in storage were cleaned and refurbished and now reside in the sacristy. This one is of Saint Dominic.

A Lamb of God wood carving on the wall of the sacristy.

One of three statues that were found in storage were cleaned and refurbished and now reside in the sacristy. This one is of Joseph.

One of the cabinets in the sacristy that is filled with holy books.

Share your memories

To help celebrate the Basilica, we’d like to hear from readers about their memories of the Basilica. Please contact writer Julie-Ann Baumer at jabaumer@gmail.com or call her at 207-353-2616.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

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.

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