Refuge for the faithful; shelter from the Cold War

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One of the fallout shelter signs at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

The book of Psalms, Hebrew poetry written centuries before the birth of Christ and the atomic bomb, makes frequent references to the defense provided by God.

Using words like “shield,” “a rock of refuge” and “a strong fortress,” one psalmist described God as “my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.” Many years later, during our nation’s Cold War with Russia, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul was not only a rock of refuge for the faithful, it was also considered a strong fortress against the possibility of nuclear fallout.

In the United States, formalized “civil defense” began during World War I. Air attacks on European domestic targets changed perceptions about threats against modern life. Focused primarily on troop mobilization, local and national civil defense initiatives were suspended when World War I ended.

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Looming war clouds in 1941 prompted President Roosevelt to create the Office of Civil Defense. Air raid drills and black outs were just a few of the activities of the OCD, but they were the beginnings of increased civilian participation in homeland defense.

In August 1949, the Soviet Union began nuclear tests; the “Cold War” was on. In 1950, President Truman launched the Federal Civil Defense Administration. Among other activities, this agency funded the 10-minute film “Duck and Cover” featuring Bert the Turtle. Shown to millions of school children during the 1950s, it included the line “be like Bert, when there is a flash, duck and cover and do it fast. “

In Maine, civil defense preparedness was spearheaded by the Maine Civil Defense and Public Safety Department and fanned down to the county and local levels. Mainers were encouraged to prepare for any number of emergencies, ranging from weather and natural disasters to nuclear attack. Abundant with natural resources, manufacturing capabilities and two strategic military bases, Maine was a potential target.

Lewiston’s civil defense operation began in the early 1950s with the Lewiston Bureau of Civil Emergency Preparedness. Its  activities expanded throughout the decade; on Oct. 26, 1957, it mobilized volunteer participation in a countywide exercise, Operation Mayflower, which included a simulated bombing.

The inauguration of President Kennedy and the rapidly heating Cold War re-energized civil defense preparedness locally. In 1961 Kennedy wrote a letter to the nation that was published in LIFE Magazine on Sept. 15. He outlined his commitment to civil defense and wrote “we have begun and will be continuing through the next year and a half, a survey of all public buildings with fallout shelter potential and the marking of those with adequate shelter for 50 persons or more.”

On Dec. 2, 1961, a wire story published in papers across the country, including the Lewiston Daily Sun, introduced to the public the simple three-triangle symbol that would be used to designate federally approved shelter space. These signs were produced, in large part, by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company — or 3M as it is known today.

Local civil defense efforts continued and then escalated in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On Oct. 31, 1962, the Daily Sun reported that Lewiston aldermen “sanctioned the establishment of a rugged underground CD control center in the basement of the public library” to “assure the continuity of the city government in time of nuclear attack or some other major disaster.”

A suggestion was also made that the then-proposed Lincoln Street Fire Department substation also be equipped with a shelter. The Daily Sun reported on Nov. 16, 1962, that radio station WCOU’s plans for a fallout shelter at its Webber Avenue transmitter site had been approved; the shelter would be for station personnel and would be completely manned with remote control units for transmitting in case of emergency.

The exact date and details regarding the Basilica’s establishment as a fallout shelter are not clear from newspaper reports available. But it became one of millions of shelter spaces across the country; the signs still posted within the Basilica today remain as evidence. While no structure could protect from a direct atomic explosion, the structure met the federal requirements to protect a minimum of at least 50 citizens from fallout radiation in the event of a nuclear attack.

In fact, according to a map and list unearthed by the folks at the Androscoggin Historical Society, we know that 80 shelters were designated in Lewiston and 42 in Auburn, including space in retail stores, mills, auto dealerships, banks, apartment buildings, eight locations on the Bates College campus, hospitals, other churches, post offices, schools, libraries, city halls and fire stations.

Little evidence of that effort remains. Most signs have been removed or have rusted into unrecognizable oblivion. In the back stairways of the Basilica, however, you can still find a reminder of those uncertain times and the strong fortress that the magnificent granite structure provided. 

Another of the fallout shelter signs at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston.

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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