Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
The prophet Isaiah identified John the Baptist as one “crying out in the wilderness.” The gospel of Matthew describes him as wearing a camel-hair tunic and subsisting on locusts and wild honey. John’s ministry foretold the coming of Jesus Christ, the “lamb of God,” and artist depictions of young John often show him with a lamb.
For Catholics, June 24 is the feast day of the nativity of John the Baptist, the man who baptized Jesus, had an influence on his life and is considered a prophet by Christians and Muslims alike.
Celebration of this day can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In North America, Quebec’s Catholics have observed the feast day — St. Jean Baptiste Day — since the 17th century and it remains an official holiday in the Province of Quebec.
John the Baptist, considered the patron saint of French Canadians, was also celebrated by Franco Americans in the Twin Cities. The first official celebration of his nativity, St. John’s Day, took place in June 1875, modeling festivities on those in Montreal. The celebration included a parade with elaborate floats and marching bands, a High Mass and a banquet meal ending with toasts to the saint, the pope and other dignitaries.
The Grand Trunk Railway even offered “St. John’s Day Excursions,” with specials to Montreal and Quebec City. In 1934, a round-trip ticket to Quebec cost $6.60.
The 1934 St. John’s Day parade, as reported in the June 22, 1934, Evening Journal, formed at the city park and moved along a circuitous route to Saints Peter and Paul church for a High Mass. Following Mass, the parade resumed and marched through other parts of the city, ending back at the park.
A long-standing tradition of the parade was the selection of a young boy from the community to represent St. John. The youth, dressed in a tunic modeled to look like camel-hair, would ride on a parade float accompanied by a lamb. Other parade participants would include religious groups, civic organizations and marching bands. The parade route would vary by year, depending on which church hosted the Mass and the afternoon banquet and program.
Roger Bouffard, now 70, remembers playing the role of St. John the Baptist in the 1950s. In 1953, he rode on a float with a banner that read “Saint Jean Baptiste, Precurseur de l’agneau de Dieu” or “forerunner of the lamb of God.” Photographs show his curly blond hair as almost white.
“When I was first born, my hair was white” Bouffard says. “My uncles used to call me ‘petit blanc,’ which is French for ‘Whitey.’”
Well-known in Lewiston-Auburn from his career at the Fortin Group, Bouffard says today his hair is “really white.”
Locks for a revered replica
While Bouffard only represented a young St. John the Baptist in the parade once, his connection to St. John has taken root in an unusual way at the Basilica.
Located to the right of the Basilica’s upper church altar is a replica of the Infant Jesus of Prague or l’Enfant Jesus de Prague. Protected under a clear plastic dome, the wax-coated wooden statue is a replica of the original located in the Church of Our Lady Victorious, in Prague, Czech Republic.
The original statue was created in the late 16th century in Spain and gifted to the Prague church in 1628. The small statue holds a cross-bearing globe in the left hand representing the kingship of Christ. The right hand is raised in blessing. The infant wears a crown and royal robes; the robes are changed to reflect the colors of the liturgical season.
Copies of the statue have attracted devotional followings around the world, including the United States. The National Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague is located in Prague, Oklahoma. Mass-produced statues of various sizes can be found in Catholic homes even today.
The Basilica’s replica was a gift of Marie-Anne Doyon. Formerly of Lewiston, Miss Doyon lived and worked in Washington, D.C. and purchased the statue there. The statue is reverently similar to the Prague original, although the Basilica’s statue has blond curls trailing from the crown, not brown.
Doyon’s niece, Gertrude Chasse, says her aunt donated it to the church in the 1950s in memory of her family. She said her aunt was very devoted and her purpose in donating it was “to interest children in the church to pray to the infant Jesus.”
Chasse was responsible for changing the replica’s robes for a number of years, although the robes on the Basilica’s replica are no longer changed. Chasse said that at one time, the statue’s fingers were broken, and her aunt located someone in Washington who could repair them. Chasse and her husband, Marcel, drove to Washington, D.C. to deliver the statue for repairs and on a separate trip, brought it back.
For many years, the Jesus de Prague statue was located in the lower church. Long-time parishioner David Rioux remembers it being located to the right of the altar, near where the Pieta statue is today.
“It was on a table, surrounded by racks of votive candles and in a clear plastic grotto that had a flat front and back, but whose sides formed an arch above and to either side of the statue,” said Rioux. “You could see into and through this little grotto from every side but the bottom.”
Roger Bouffard remembers the statue’s location in the lower church, too. Although not a member of Saints Peter and Paul, he attended St. Peter’s school and was familiar with the church from weekly trips to confession. He thinks the nuns made the clothing for the statue. He also recalls some of the nuns approaching his mother and asking if she would cut his hair to be used for the Jesus de Prague.
“My mother put my hair in pin curls,” Bouffard said. After the curls set, his mother cut them and gave them to the nuns for the statue.
Chasse, who was familiar with the statue from her years of changing its robes, said she never knew it was Bouffard’s hair under the crown.
“If I had known, I would have asked him for a few extra pieces of hair,” Chasse said. “It just doesn’t have enough hair.”
Following church renovation in the 1990s, the Jesus de Prague was placed in the upper church, where it remains placid and serene today.
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.