Lewiston’s resplendent Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

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Full of world-class architecture, craftsmanship, history and mystery, the 80-year-old ‘lunch pail’ church will be the focus of a yearlong look by the Sun Journal.

For the last 80 years, the eight spires of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul at 122 Ash St., which soar 165 feet into the air, have dominated the Lewiston skyline. 

The iconic spires and the building itself have come to not only represent the city, but to stand as a testament to faith, happenstance, art, architecture, the power of vision coupled with determination, and the lives of the thousands of people who financed, planned or built it.

“There’s so much history in this building. You could spend years going through everything,” sacristan Mark Labonte said last Sunday as he shared little-known stories and pointed out curious features in the massive church.

The current structure, which includes a sub-cellar, cellar, 110-year-old lower church, 80-year-old upper church and catwalk, was built over three decades in the early 1900s to accommodate the growing French Canadian community who came to L-A to work in the mills.

The Rev. Peter Hevey, considered the founder of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, acquired the site at Ash and Bartlett streets in 1872. All accounts indicate he was well regarded by both Catholic and secular members of the community.

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“L’Annes Dominicaine” in January 1882 reported: “The French Catholic parish of Lewiston, one of the most important in the state, had for its pastor a man of great merit and exceptional activity. By dint of zeal and energy, he succeeded in a few years in thoroughly organizing the French Catholics of the city, in building a commodious and beautiful church in one of the most desirable quarters of Lewiston, and in making his parish one of the largest and most flourishing in the state of Maine.”

The original brick church, dedicated May 14, 1873, was itself a distinguished structure. It cost $75,000 to build, seated 1,500 and featured one spire. From the beginning, the community was deeply involved. According to parish records, the church’s first benefactor was local resident Eleusippe Garneau who made a $10 donation toward the new structure on Feb. 26, 1872.

In 1881, Hevey invited to Lewiston six Dominican fathers, led by A.L. Mothon of St. Hyacinth, Canada, to run the growing parish. The Catholic community had blossomed to 10,000 parishioners. Bursting at the seams, the parish sought and received permission to build a new church.

On Nov. 1, 1890, the Lewiston Evening Journal announced the construction of a new “almost cathedral” to be built on the site of the “present church of the St. Peter’s Congregation.” The Journal boasted that this new structure would be able to welcome 12,000 people.

The original building was demolished,and construction on what is known as the lower church was completed in 1906, with work on the more imposing upper church completed in 1936 and dedicated on Oct. 23, 1938.

Over the years, the structure has been a distinctive and inspiring presence in the community. Architecturally, it is a remarkable achievement: At 300 feet, it’s longer than a football field and the second largest Catholic church in New England (the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston is slightly longer).

Unlike the medieval cathedrals in Europe, Lewiston’s church was constructed in this century, during the most difficult years of the Great Depression. Despite such a challenge, the building offers dramatic design, intricate woodwork and stonework, and other features that rise to the level of world-class art.

According to numerous accounts, the money for the basilica was raised not by a single wealthy benefactor but through community donations and the nickels and dimes of parishioners of the time at bake sales and local fundraising events.

The final cost for the building was roughly $800,000, about $13.7 million today — a bargain then and now — “from the lunch pails of the working class,” as Labonte likes to say.

The parish hired Lewiston architect Noel Coumont to design the structure. The cornerstone of the basement church was laid in an 1895 ceremony. For unspecified reason, Coumont was then fired and other local architects stepped in to complete the basement church in 1906.

A lack of funds and a challenging economic landscape resulted in a 28-year break in construction. During those lean years, mass was held in the lower church until enough money was raised to hire Boston architect Timothy G. O’Connell from the firm O’Connell and Shaw in May 1934. Quebec-born Lewiston resident Louis Malo won the job of contractor with a bid of $361,510. 

O’Connell’s new plans called for 30,000 cubic feet of granite, all sourced from a quarry in Jay. Some of this granite was used to encase columns rising 100 feet to the yellow, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Building materials also included 1.7 million bricks and 325 tons of steel, which serves as the structural core (no medieval flying buttresses here). Stained-glass windows were installed in 1948. Constantino Brumidi, who also painted the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., designed most of the interior.

When construction was completed, services were often held in both the upper church, which seats 1,800, and the lower church, which seats 1,500, simultaneously and in different languages. Today, the basilica offers services in French, English, Spanish and Latin.

In 1983, the basilica was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1990, another major renovation took place that spanned a decade. In 2007, a Mass was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the lower church. On May 22, 2005, the Catholic Church by Papal Brief honored Lewiston’s basilica with the “minor basilica” distinction, making ours one of only 82 minor basilicas in the United States. There are only four major basilicas in the world and they are all in Rome.

In honor of the 110-year-old lower church and 80-year-old upper church that comprise the basilica, the Sun Journal is launching a photo series that, every Sunday for the next 52 weeks, will spotlight one of its features as a way of exploring and highlighting the basilica’s rich social and cultural narrative in our community.

Over the next year, the series will explore secret rooms behind the high altar, crawl along the catwalk, explore the cellars and rooftop carvings, and peek into drawers and cabinets (and a safe!) 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 church’s enduring myths and mysteries.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Over the next year, the Sun Journal’s photo series will explore secret rooms behind the high altar, crawl along the catwalk, explore the cellars and rooftop carvings, and peek into drawers and cabinets (and a safe!) 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 church’s enduring myths and mysteries. 

The entire series will be archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.

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