The Basilica's mysterious bend

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The center aisle of the Basilica takes a turn near the front of the church.
The center aisle of the Basilica takes a turn near the front of the church.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

One of the as-yet-unsolved mysteries of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is often missed by regular attendees and infrequent visitors alike.

From the pews, it’s subtle and almost imperceptible. Priests, lectors and altar servers standing at the altar, a few feet above the pews, have a better chance of noticing it.

What is this mystery? The Basilica is crooked.

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One good place to see the building’s ever-so-slight tilt is at the marble floor tiles near the altar. From the center aisle, the tile pattern leans slightly to the left.

A bird’s-eye view from above shows that the most northern portion of the church that contains the altar and Dominican choir seems to tip to the left.

From the altar, the view down the aisle toward the main entrance of the church is slightly askew.

Why?

Sacristan Mark Labonte says one explanation he has heard is that the crooked alignment was designed to “mimic Christ’s head on the cross.”

Labonte admits another possibility is that the alignment resulted from an architectural error.

Father Antonin Plourde, O.P., hinted at problems in his 1970 100-year history of the parish, “Cent ans de vie paroissiale SS. Pierre et Paul de Lewiston.” After the old St. Peter’s church was demolished and contractors began dynamiting for the lower church on Bartlett Street in 1905, Plourde chronicled an argument that took place at that time and mentioned that the architect was “never watching his yard.” Regardless, the foundation stones continued to arrive and on Feb. 22, 1906, the “crane (was) installed in the center of the building.”

The written history indicated that in 1908 there were “legal proceedings brought by the architect,” and in 1909 the Dominican brothers “put an end to the Coumont affair, paying him a bonus of $4,000 in addition to fees,” which freed them to choose another architect.

Plourde’s reference was to Noel Coumont, a Belgian architect living in Lewiston who was hired by church leaders as the building’s original designer.

According to the nomination form submitted in 1983 to the National Register of Historic Places by church leaders, “Work began on the basement of the new church in the fall of 1905. Coumont supervised construction until late that winter, when he was fired from the project upon the discovery that he had dug the foundation in the wrong direction. His plans were retained however; the old church was demolished that same year, and the basement, or crypt, was completed in December 1906.”

Nothing ties Coumont directly to the church’s tilt, but is it possible the problems with the foundation caused later difficulties? Is it possible that Coumont “never watching his yard” resulted in a slight, permanent misalignment in one of New England’s most prominent churches?

It remains a mystery and possibly one of the most interesting and unique features of the Basilica.

This view from directly above the Basilica shows the structure’s top section, which faces the brick monastery, tilting slightly to the left. 
This wide-angle photograph of the center aisle of the Basilica from the balcony at the front of the church shows the altar and the other elements in the chancel at the far end of the church slightly off-kilter to the left. 

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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