The Basilica’s wooden saints
While construction of the Basilica was officially completed and the magnificent structure open for parishioners in 1938, changes and enhancements to the church were made almost from the very beginning.
For example, the stained-glass windows appear to be part of the original construction, but only the Malo window at the rear of the church behind the altar was installed at the time the church opened. The remainder of the windows were installed 10 years after, under the direction of Father Francois Drouin.
The church’s wooden sculptures are another example, adding to the beauty and uniqueness of the church almost a decade later.
Flanking each side altar are two life-size carved wooden statues in niches; high above each choir loft are two more wooden statues in their niches, for a total of eight. They represent St. Dominic, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Anne, St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose of Lima, St. Thomas Aquinas, Blessed Imelda and St. Theresa.
In the process of researching the statues for this story, a suggestion from a reader and former parishioner suggested they were crafted by members of the Quebecois woodcarving family, the Bourgaults. Brothers Andre, Jean-Julien and Medard Bourgault, from St.-Jean Port-joli, were sought-after woodcarvers in the mid-1900s. Known as “les trois berets” or “the three berets,” they left a significant legacy of woodcarving in churches throughout the Province of Quebec. Approximately 100 pieces of their work today can be found in the Musee Quebecois de Culture Populaire located in Trois-Rivieres.
Andre-Medard Bourgault, Medard’s son, is also a sculptor and has access to the family archives. Based on the suggestion received, Bourgault looked at pictures of the Basilica’s wooden statues at the Sun Journal’s request. He noted the majority of his family’s large pieces sculpted between 1930 and 1950 were sold in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes. He also commented that members of family signed their sculptures, normally on the right front of the statue. The Basilica’s wooden statues show no evidence of signature.
Bourgault commented that “the style of the sculpture is either Italian or German.”
Germany, too, has a famous family of woodcarvers — the Albl family of Oberammergau, Bavaria. Their artistic history dates to the mid-1500s. But the provenance of the Basilica’s wooden sculptures could not be traced to the quaint village nestled near the Alps. Johannes Albl, after looking at pictures of the Basilica’s statues for the Sun Journal, said, “We think these statues are coming most likely from Belgium.”
Fortunately, before the research journey headed into Belgium, the identity of the Basilica’s wooden statues was revealed, hiding in plain sight.
Arch Soutar wrote a lengthy story for the Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine on May 18, 1946, about the church’s “Diamond Jubilee.” This three-day festival included three Masses, a banquet, choral performances and a dramatic performance. Soutar’s article included an interview with “the man in charge” of the festivities, the Rev. Francois M. Drouin, O.P.
Soutar wrote, “Only yesterday Father Drouin showed me recent additions, including the two lovely groupings flanking either side of the exquisitely lovely marble altar. . . . The figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph have long been familiar, but Father Drouin himself arranged for carving of the wooden statues of other figures. They were done in Switzerland by the artist Thoman, life-sized figures of choice, precious, enduring wood — beautiful in their conception, exquisite in execution, and gradually, new, attaining a patina that adds new life and character to their restful lines and angles.”
Unfortunately, little more is known about the work of Thoman or, possibly, Thomann. Research turns up little connecting the name to life-size religious sculpture. One of the few references found indicates large wooden sculptures by Ernst Filip Thomann — of St. John the Baptist and the Virgin and Child — can be found at Boston’s Church of the Advent. It would be speculation, however, to say the Basilica’s statues are by the same artist.
Father Drouin studied and obtained his doctorate in sacred theology at Fribourg University in Switzerland. With his energy and influence he accomplished many things during his tenure at Saints Peter and Paul Church, which spanned 1940 to 1952, including the founding of Saint Dominic Regional High School, the installation of the stained-glass windows and the construction of the city’s hockey arena.
As evidenced in Soutar’s 1946 article, the installation of Swiss wooden sculptures is yet another entry in the long list of Father Drouin’s accomplishments.