The design of the cross

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A view from the air highlights the cross shape of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

LEWISTON — With approximately 600 churches and civic buildings already on his resume and nearing the end of his career, Boston architect Timothy G. O’Connell wanted to build a grand cathedral reminiscent of the spectacular structures across Europe that rose high above the surrounding homes.

St. Peter and Paul Church would be the biggest that O’Connell, at age 60, had ever designed.

The parishioners in the Twin Cities knew O’Connell’s work well. He had previously designed the former St. Mary’s Church (now the Franco Center) in Lewiston and the former St. Louis Church in Auburn.

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Taking inspiration from the huge medieval Gothic structures in Europe, in 1928 O’Connell designed his masterpiece using the cruciform architectural plan. The cross is clearly visible in overhead photos.

The second largest Catholic church in New England, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is longer than a football field. The elongated nave is 316 feet long, while and the arms — called transepts — are a total of 110 feet wide, forming a perfect Latin cross.

The Latin cross, used as the floor plan in churches since the Middle Ages, symbolizes the crucifix, the prominent religious symbol for Jesus’ sacrifice and suffering. It became the prominent design for the great cathedrals in Western Europe.

Like the grand European cathedrals, Gothic churches with the cruciform design were usually built with the nave on an east-west axis. The east end contained the altar, with the main entrance at the west end. The transepts went north-south and would often contain small chapels.

Due to its construction at the intersection of Ash and Bartlett streets, the basilica’s nave travels primarily southeast-northwest, with the entrance at its southeastern end.

Mark Labonte, the sacristan of the basilica, noted that internally the Lewiston landmark does not follow the design of a true cruciform church because the floor plan does not have an altar or pews in the transepts. Each arm of the basilica contains a choir loft high above the floor.

O’Connell’s opportunity to design the basilica came more than 20 years after the original St. Peter’s Church was torn down because it was too small for the growing French-Canadian congregation. Lewiston resident Noel Coumont, a Belgian architect, had reportedly designed the replacement, which was modeled after a French cathedral.

Construction began in 1905, but Coumont was fired a few months later when it was discovered that the foundation was dug in the wrong direction. Work continued on Coumont’s design. The church basement or crypt was completed in late 1906 and served as the location for Mass.

Construction to complete the upper portion of the church stalled. Funds also grew tight when the diocese subdivided the parish with the formation of St. Mary’s, Holy Family and Holy Cross churches.

It wasn’t until 1928 that the parish had saved enough money to complete the church. O’Connell’s cruciform design, based on a Norman version of a high Gothic church, was approved. The diocese finally gave the parish permission to finish the upper church in 1933. It was completed in 1936 and dedicated in 1938.

The basilica’s application for listing on the National Register of Historic Places says the church is “the only one in Maine to be faithfully modeled after a Gothic cathedral.”

A view from the air highlights the cross shape of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

Unlike many Catholic churches with a cruciform design, which typically are constructed on an east-west orientation, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is on a more north-south line, parallel to the property line along Bartlett Street 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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