Despite the knowledge that the lower church would eventually be topped by a more grand upper church, church leaders and designers took great pride and care in creating a beautiful atmosphere worthy of God’s presence in the lower church.
Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
In 1845, 19-year-old Israel Shevenell left Compton, Quebec, on foot. He arrived in Biddeford 200 miles and two weeks later. He took a job as a brick maker and became Biddeford’s first permanent French Canadian. Memories of similar feats of endurance and determination linger with the legend of French Canadian “raquetteurs” who trekked from Quebec to Lewiston on snowshoes to participate in the city’s international winter sporting conventions.
This quality of patience and stamina is not unique to French Canadians. And yet, this same quiet perseverance and spiritual stamina was evident in the generations of French Canadian and Franco American Catholics who waited for the completion of their own great cathedral-style church in Lewiston.
On Monday, June 24, 1895, St. John’s Day, The Lewiston Daily Sun reported details of “impressive ceremonies” the day prior. The occasion? According to the Daily Sun, “the cornerstone of the new monastery of the Dominican order was laid and work begun in earnest upon what will be one of the finest, if not the finest piece of church property in New England.”
The newspaper reported, “the Dominican Fathers and French societies decided to celebrate it (St. John’s Day) one day in advance and it was agreed that it would also be a most fitting occasion upon which to lay the cornerstone of the magnificent structure that is to be erected.”
The article highlighted the parade involving hundreds of participants that began at the Dominican block on Lincoln Street, the attending band and uniformed societies, the speeches and music, and the crowd of 5,000 onlookers.
Included with the article was a sketch of the proposed “magnificent structure” — a planned addition to the existing St. Peter’s Church on the corner of Ash and Bartlett streets in Lewiston that would lengthen and add to the height and grandeur of the church, while connecting it to the new monastery.
Over the next few years the monastery, with access on Bartlett Street, was completed and choir lofts were added to St. Peter’s Church to accommodate the growing parish population. Then, the plans changed.
Instead of expanding St. Peter’s, church leaders decided a “lower church” would be built on the site of St. Peter’s Church, with plans to add an “upper church” on top of the lower church that would surpass in magnificence anything in New England.
Ten years after the cornerstone for the monastery was laid, in 1905, workers began digging in preparation for the construction of the “crypt” or lower church. A temporary place of worship, called The Shed, was built behind St. Peter’s (over what is now the basement location of the Basilica’s furnaces). Once The Shed was complete, the demolition of St. Peter’s began, while work continued on the crypt.
The lower church was finished in 1906 and open for worship on Christmas day. It was a grand space, featuring stained-glass windows, a stunning main altar, highly ornate and intricate wood and plaster carvings and figures, and beautiful ceilings and chandeliers.
Yet it also opened with the expectation that the upper church — with even greater spiritual and architectural splendor — would soon be under construction. However, the imposing second part of the building plan would not be completed for another 30 years, in 1936, and not dedicated until Oct. 23, 1938, as church politics decreased diocesan support for the project.
So, what began as a public announcement on Nov. 1, 1890, about plans for the construction of a new “almost cathedral” on the site of St. Peter’s Church, was dedicated 48 years later, testing and certainly proving the patience and perseverance of the many thousands of Franco Americans who supported and worshipped at that location over those years.
For today’s feature, we offer pictures of the lower church — which unexpectedly served as the place of worship for the community’s Franco Americans for 30 years — ranging from the boulders rolled into place as walls more than 100 years ago to the remaining ornate plaster flowers and gargoyles that were part of third architect Noel Coumont’s Gothic vision for the parish. (More on the Basilica’s many architects next week.)
By the way, the story of Biddeford’s Israel Shevenell and the retracing of his steps in 2015 by his 74-year-old great-great-grandson Ray Shevenell has been chronicled in a documentary called “The Home Road.” The documentary has been touring the state and will be shown at the Franco Center in Lewiston on Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. For more information, contact the Franco Center at 783-1585, go to the website at www.francocenter.org or go to www.thehomeroad.com.
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.
These windows, and others positioned just above ground level in the lower church of the Basilica, served as the sources of natural light for parishioners for 30 years until the upper church was built.
The beautiful visual offerings of the lower church include the original ornate plaster work on this wall behind what was once the main altar.
The granite on the exterior of the Basilica reveals the division between the lower and upper churches.
The ornate flowers on these columns are just one example of the many beautiful elements remaining in the lower church.
The large boulders forming a part of the foundation of the lower church next to a doorway hint at the strenuous effort that went into creating the base of the Basilica.
The creatures adorning a doorway are two of many in the lower church of the Basilica that make the space unique.
The foundation of the Basilica was formed from a combination of stone, brick and cement, all of which can be seen at this location in the lower church.
This postcard image offers a closer look at the grandeur of the lower church and the altar area before renovations were made.