The future of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

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The procession during last week’s Red Mass at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is a blur in this time exposure.

The Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul serves in the heart of the city.

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If you had visited the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in the early 1990s, you would have been surprised by what you saw. Significant water damage from leaks had stained and discolored the upper church’s walls.

This slow drip of water made some of the stations of the cross, affixed on the walls between the stained-glass windows, unrecognizable. Like lumps of sugar in a hot cup of tea, the decorative and instructive reminders of Jesus Christ’s journey to the cross were slowly dissolving.

How many parishioners saw and remembered the damage is unknown. According to the Sun Journal’s weekly church listings, by December 1989 all Masses were being said in the lower church.

Richard Theriault, project manager for the church’s interior restoration in 2001 and 2002, remembers the damage.

“It was in tough shape,” he said.

The water damage was from years of rain seeping first through the granite and then the brick behind it. “It was bad. It was really bad,” said Theriault. “There were sections of the upper church walls that were washed out almost completely.”

How could this have happened? Theriault noted that some of the damage appears to have started “way back” when the Dominicans were still overseeing the structure. Some of the things they did were not done properly. For instance, one of the two front towers experienced significant leaking, which was remedied by coating the inside of the tower with tar.

This application, which may have seemed like a good idea at the time, actually hurt more than it helped because it trapped water within the walls and caused the masonry to deteriorate faster, Theriault said.

In 1991, just five years after the departure of the Dominican fathers who served the parish since 1881, the parish began an exterior renovation project. The project, which took approximately nine years to complete, was done by DICON, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine’s in-house restoration and construction company.

According to the Diocese’s website, DICON is “a construction company always on the cutting edge of technology, not only restoring buildings, but restoring them to withstand the test of time.”

Theriault said DICON “basically took the building apart from the outside and put it back together” to fix the structure and stop the water from coming in. Workers dug out each piece of granite, cleared the grouted joints, pulled the stone out, made sure the brickwork behind the stone was good, put the stone back into position and then regrouted it, Theriault said.

Following DICON’s exterior stonework, the entire exterior was waterproofed to prevent further masonry deterioration.

After the almost decade-long exterior project was complete, interior restoration began in 2000. Much of the work involved cleaning and repairing the plaster work as well as rebuilding the sanctuary.

Some work was done on the organs, including pulling out and cleaning all the pipes. Theriault said that of all the elements of the restoration, the organ work concerned him the most. The pipes were very delicate and “there were a ton of them.”

By the end of 2002, the project was finished and parish plans continued for the church’s eventual attainment of “basilica” status in May, 2005.

Changes in the Catholic community

The decade-long renovation of the exterior and interior was an expensive project with a price tag of $4 million. It came in the midst of a surprising time for Lewiston-Auburn’s Catholic community.

In July, 2000 St. Mary’s Church closed. In 2009, St. Joseph’s and St. Patrick’s churches closed. In 2013, Auburn’s St. Louis Church closed and would eventually be sold.

In a Feb. 4, 2000, Sun Journal article on the closing of St. Mary’s Church, janitor George Cloutier told a reporter, “There’s people who have been here all their lives, and it’s pretty hard to take.”

This theme of sadness would be repeated as each Catholic church closed. References were made to the Kubler Ross cycle of grief. As recently as April 14, 2013, in a newspaper account of a meeting at St. Louis Church announcing the permanent closure and possible demolition of the church, Father Richard McLaughlin “likened St. Louis’ condition to one of a pervasive illness.”

In December 2014, St. Louis Church was sold to a group of investors to be restored and reused as a landmark community space. Mayor Jonathan LaBonte expressed relief and said, “The community really needs to stay focused on the prize. Our heritage and these architectural masterpieces are part of that formula.”

The future of the Basilica

On any given Sunday in 1950, there were at least 32 Masses available to Lewiston Catholics. Nine of these Masses were at the building that became the Basilica.

Today, there are fewer Masses at the Basilica and the entire Prince of Peace parish, which is made up of Lewiston’s three remaining Catholic churches: the Basilica, Holy Family and Holy Cross.

Recently, an announcement was made from the pulpit concerning the elimination of three Masses from the schedule, bringing the total number said in the parish down to 10. The details concerning these changes will be included in church bulletins available at this weekend’s Masses.

The reduction in Masses reflects not only a diminishing number of practicing Catholics in the parish but fewer priests. Which in turn, can’t help but throw the future of the parishes’ churches into question, including the Basilica.

One parishioner wondered out loud if the Basilica would someday be a shrine, honoring the Dominicans who conceived it, the thousands of parishioners who funded its construction and the Catholic faith in general.

Bob Gilbert, who has attended the Basilica his entire life and has served in many capacities within the Basilica (including a historical resource for this series), acknowledged that a number of demographic factors concern him.

He said smaller families are a factor in the dwindling population, and he wondered if younger church members were “still being attracted to worship as we know it today.”

He also acknowledged the current priest shortage has been difficult, with only three full-time priests serving the entire Prince of Peace parish.

In spite of this, Gilbert said, “I’m still optimistic and I will continue contributing as long as I can.” He elaborated on the hope he has in the young Catholic families he meets, most notably those who attend the Basilica’s popular Sunday 10 a.m. Mass, noting, “There are still a lot of people who care about the church.”

Predictions about the future of any church rest heavily on the number of its parishioners and their level of support. The Basilica has been blessed with strong support.

According to a representative of the Prince of Peace Parish Finance Committee, part of the ongoing maintenance of the Basilica is supported by income from The Theriault Family Trust, established by longtime parishioner Jeanne M. Theriault upon her death in 2004. The donation was made in memory of her father, J. Nazaire Theriault. Ms. Theriault was a generous supporter of the church throughout her life and contributed to the carillon bell upgrade in 2002.

According to the committee representative, there have been other generous donations made toward the ongoing maintenance of the Basilica.

Bishop Robert Deeley, head of the Catholic Diocese in Maine, for his part appears optimistic the Basilica will remain a part of the physical and spiritual landscape of Lewiston for years to come.

On Friday, Oct. 13, Deeley celebrated Mass at the Basilica. When asked, “Where do you see this church in 20 years?” he responded:

“I can’t see anything but the fact that it continues to be here. It’s a church, which is a living entity. And the community that comes here loves being here and they’re very generous to keep the church up. And as long as that continues, the church continues.”

The Basilica — some parts of which are more than 100 years old — needs regular attention in the face of time and the elements. 

The spires at the front of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul reach to the sky.

The spires of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul are backlit by a dusk sky.

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