Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
Gail Gregoire Lawrence was a student at St. Peter’s School in the 1960s and remembers the regular walks from Bates Street to what was then Saints Peter and Paul church. She remembers polished marble and sparkling chandeliers; she counted the jewel-like colors in the glittering glass windows. She remembers the intricately carved wood visible behind the high altar in an area known as the Dominican choir. She recalls a friend pointing to the side doors that led into that area and saying, “If you open THAT door, you’ll be where the priests live.”
The “Dominican choir” was not where the priests lived. But it is a seldom-seen, beautiful, highly ornate place where they gathered each day to pray the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours.
According to the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Liturgy of the Hours . . . (has) parallels in Jewish prayer.” A Jew by birth, St. Paul exhorted Timothy and the early church at Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing.” The Liturgy of the Hours, required prayer of all priests, occurs at various times of the morning, daytime, evening (vespers) and night (compline).
Brother Irenee Richard, O.P., who has been serving at the Basilica since 1975, described how the brothers assembled in the Dominican choir and “chanted the (Divine) Office, like Trappists and Benedictines.”
“The Dominican friars were semi-cloistered,” Richard explained, “part contemplative and part active.” The choir was where the brothers would gather and pray. It it remains a special place with carved wooden seats, a corresponding altar on the other side of the high altar and highly ornate woodwork, plaster carvings and statuary.
There is also an Opus 1587 Casavant organ in the space. Not only experts in organ building, the Casavant artisans who installed the Basilica’s large, main Casavant organ also carved and crafted the intricate woodwork designs of the Dominican choir.
The word “choir” to describe the area comes from the terms of church architecture: “Choir” designates a place for clergy. Early churches, of very simple construction, had no such space. As church rituals developed and became more elaborate, space was needed for larger numbers of clergy. The “choir” in the Basilica is different from a “choir loft” built for singing choirs.
There are gates into the Dominican choir on either side of the high altar, as well as two side doors, and a back door that leads to the monastery, but Richard said “the area was off-limits to the lay people.” He added: “Unless the organ needed to be repaired.”
Each Dominican brother had an assigned choir stall. The stall’s seats are hinged and can be tilted up and back. On the underside of the seat is a smaller wooden ledge — called a “misericord” or mercy seat. The brothers would be able to rest on the seat yet still appear to be standing, for use during long, standing services.
Before the upper church was built, the Dominicans would have prayed the Divine Order in the monastery’s chapel. The Dominican choir was then used until 1975, when, as the number of Dominican brothers diminished to 18, they once again gathered in the monastery chapel to pray.
Richard said he was “was not happy when we decided to pray in the house.” Praying in the choir was “awesome,” he recalled. “I loved it, it was so big. And it was always cool in the choir.”
With Richard now the last remaining Dominican at the Basilica, the Dominican choir is not often used. Basilica Sacristan Mark Labonte says it has been used to bless a marriage or for special occasions, such as morning prayer during Lent. With its wood in pristine condition, the Dominican choir remains an impressive and solemn space, dedicated to contemplation and prayer.
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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.