Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
No single group has had a greater influence on the development of what would become the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul than the Dominicans.
Their influence started quietly: “When the French Canadians settled in the area, 99 percent of them were Catholic. Eventually, a French Canadian priest came down from Canada so they could have services in their own language,” historian James Myall said recently.
That priest was from the Dominican Order and that simple act led to 105 years of Dominican “management” of the church, as well as their influence in the creation of what would become northern New England’s largest church and a controversy over control of the church that ultimately ended with the pope in Rome.
Meanwhile, on the community level, the area’s large population of Franco-American Catholics and the Dominican Order’s core philosophy combined to create a vibrant community for many years that included schools, care for the poor and a rich religious environment.
“We were all over the place. It was a very lively, active community,” said Brother Raoul (Irenee) Richard, O.P., who is today the last Dominican at the basilica.
In the early 1900s, there were 26 friars. “That was the height,” Richard said. “You had 11 associates assigned to the parish, in addition to the pastor. Then you had others that would chaplain at the hospital. Back then, there were a couple of orphanages (the Dominicans would visit) — one for girls, one for boys. And then the schools: St. Peter’s and, of course, St. Dom’s.”
AN ‘UNUSUAL’ ARRANGEMENT
The Dominican Order was founded by the Spanish priest Dominic of Caleruega in France, approved by Pope Honorius III in 1216. Education and charity were the hallmarks of the new order, which remain today, and active preaching was employed to reach the masses.
The influence of Dominic — who was later recognized by the church as a saint —spread throughout the world, including Canada, as the New World developed.
In 1881, Portland Bishop James Augustine Healy invited the recently established Dominican Order in Canada to “assist” at St. Peter’s Parish in Lewiston, which was experiencing a rapid influx of Canadians of French descent to work in Lewiston’s mills.
“Like a lot of others in New England, they had separate parishes based on ethnic identify. The Irish parish and the French parish in Lewiston,” said Myall, who was the coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine from 2010 to 2014. The French church at that time was St. Peter’s, eventually to become the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
Myall’s work gave him unparalleled access to archival documents that detail what he called the “interesting history” between the Dominican friars, who ran the church from 1881 to 1986, and the Portland Catholic diocese.
“It was unusual in New England,” he said. Shortly after inviting the first Dominican priest to St. Peter’s in 1881, “the bishop of Maine gave the parish to the Dominican Order.” Aside from several early appointments, the Dominicans ran the parish from that point on.
“This made for some interesting dynamics between the bishop and the Dominicans because (it meant) the bishop had less control over the parish than he might have had otherwise,” Myall explained.
Myall looked at historical artifacts in the Franco-American Collection to understand this unique relationship. “When they’re describing the new parish, there is a reference in an old document that the church is going to be the largest in New England.” In fact, the new church in Lewiston would ultimately be bigger than the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, which opened in 1869.
“This is already a political move,” Myall said.
At the time, church hierarchy in Maine was mostly controlled by the Irish bishops, the Irish having a larger population in Maine at that time. But the growing number of French Catholics and the Catholic diocese’s unusual decision to hand St. Peter’s over to the Dominicans resulted in “long-term simmering tension,” Myall said.
While he said he didn’t come across any direct references to that tension in his research, there was indirect evidence, including “suspicions” that the Dominicans had “ambitions to set up a system, like a parallel system, with a separate diocese in Lewiston.”
Franco Americans eventually outnumbered Irish Americans in Maine, but for many years they held very few positions within church hierarchy. Myall cited a ceremony on Mount Desert Island in 1913 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first Catholic mission in New England, “and the Franco-American who’s invited makes a point of making a speech saying it’s the first time a Franco-American has been invited to take part in church affairs.”
Myall believes the tension “came to a head” at the turn of the century when the Portland diocese petitioned the Legislature to enact a law for “sole corporation,” which meant allowing the diocese, Myall said, “in effect to transfer all property over to the diocese.” That would have included St. Peter’s Church, which the diocese had placed in the control of the Dominicans.
Myall said that move “set off a firestorm in the Franco-American community.” Jean-Baptiste Couture, the editor of the local French newspaper Le Messager, and many others in the community argued the law was an attempt to reduce local control of the parish.
Couture wrote that by controlling church funds, the diocese was attempting to “wrest control of St. Peter’s away from the Dominicans and local parishioners.” According to historical documents in the collection, Couture protested so vehemently Bishop Louis Walsh issued an interdict against him.
This all formed the backdrop to the delayed construction of the new St. Peter’s Church in Lewiston (the basilica). The “sole corporation” law was passed by the Legislature, which made it easier for the Portland diocese to direct funds to create three new parishes here: St. Louis in 1902, St. Mary’s in 1907 and Holy Cross and Holy Family in 1923. But it occurred at the same time that the original St. Peter’s Church was being torn down for the construction of a larger church.
Because of a lack of funds, it became a two-stage process, with the “lower church” of St. Peter’s opening in 1906, but the “upper church” — including the towering exterior of the existing structure — not completed until 1937.
Basilica historian Bob Gilbert acknowledged that construction of the four other parishes diverted diocese funds away from St. Peter’s. And the eventual completion of the magnificent St. Peter’s just worsened the tensions.
Gilbert said that after the upper church was finished in 1937, disagreement arose between the diocese and the Dominicans over who “owned” the new building. “Because the Dominicans had put money into this, and the parishioners had put money into this, why should the diocese own what they didn’t pay for?” Gilbert said. “At that point in time, the Dominicans had done a lot of things really without any diocesan help.”
“It went to Rome and Rome decided that it belonged to the Dominicans and the parishioners,” Gilbert said.
THE LAST DOMINICAN
The ensuing years were very active for the church and its members, with the Dominican’s overseeing its mission until 1986. That year, the administration of the parish returned to the diocese in Portland.
“We were at the parish for 105 years,” said Brother Richard. “We turned over the parish, but we stayed in the priory because we were still about 12 at that point. And some of us stayed on staff for the transition.”
The priory or living quarters for the Dominicans, located next to Saints Peter and Paul Church, once housed 26 men, but accommodated only four by the late 1980s. A smaller house was purchased in Lewiston on Richmond Avenue. “Then, some fell ill and moved to nursing homes and one went back to Canada. The others have died here. And I ended up staying here alone,” Richard said.
Today, Richard is the last Dominican in Lewiston. “I’m a native of Lewiston. I was born in 1943 and attended schools in Lewiston, graduated from St. Dom’s,” he said. “I was an altar server here at the basilica,” entering the Dominican Order in September 1962.
The order decides where each brother will serve, and Richard’s first assignment was Saint Hyacinth, Canada, from 1962 to 1965. “The superiors assign you. You can refuse if you have very good reasons. We take vows of obedience,” he said.
He then was ordered to Ottawa, Ontario, for four years. “That job really opened me up to a different ministry as a brother,” he said. “Instead of working uniquely in the house doing manual stuff — cooking, cleaning, laundry and so forth — I was a receptionist. I got to know some people there. Some of them would speak to me and I would listen. I loved that.”
From Ontario, he went to Fall River, Massachusetts, for six years. “Gradually, I got out of my shell,” he said. In Fall River he was the assistant and then the administrator of Saint Anne’s Shrine.
Then, in 1975, he returned to Lewiston. “And I’ve been here since. And I plan on dying here.”
On June 11, 2011, Richard was ordained as a permanent deacon in the Order of Preachers. “In the Dominican Order, you were either a priest or a brother. There was no in between,” he said. In his province, he is the first to break that barrier.
He was also the first brother to serve as treasurer of the priory. “These positions were usually reserved for priests, but slowly they opened it up to people who were qualified.”
He is allowed to remain in Lewiston because of his work at the Saint Martin de Porres shelter for men and women behind the priory at 23 Bartlett St. It celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. A new shelter for women will open soon in the former Saint Andre Group Home on Sabattus Street. “It will be called ‘Saint Catherine of Siena Residence,’” he said, and he will work there as well.
The shelters are an example of the Dominican’s focus on charity and helping those in need. Richard credits his association with a homeless man named Alan for his desire to open both shelters.
Before meeting Alan, Richard said, he had no contact with the homeless community. “I knew there were homeless people, but to meet one face-to-face, never. I realized these people have a story to tell. It’s not always their fault. There are circumstances and there are events in their lives that put them in situations.”
Alan, originally from Newport, Vermont, was kicked out of his home at age 14 and had been homeless ever since. Richard met him in 1977 when Alan was 28 years old, and only knew him for three years before Alan’s death by drowning.
His relationship with Alan began by accident, but developed into one of mutual respect. “We’d just sit and talk. It was a nice friendship. I’m not saying it was always perfect. There were some hard times, some hard moments. After all, he was a homeless individual. He had nothing,” Richard said.
Richard describes himself as reserved, and his manner is quiet and unassuming. That, he believes, may be one reason why he formed such a strong bond with Alan. Alan once thanked him for not shoving the gospel “down his throat” and, in fact, Richard said they did not often discuss religion.
“Thirty-nine years ago and I still remember his words,” Richard said. And he remembers responding to Alan, “I will never shove the gospel down your throat because I don’t like it shoved down my throat. I know what I have to do for my relationship with God, but I can tell you that what we are doing now — sitting here, listening — is gospel.”
The relationship had a profound and lasting impact on Richard. In 1991 he founded Saint Martin de Porres. “That young man taught me a lot,” he said.
The priory’s red brick stands in colorful contrast to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The priory is where the members of the Dominican Order at the basilica stayed, until their diminished numbers prompted church officials to find a smaller housing unit for them and to close the priory.
Alexandre Louis Mothon was the first Dominican curate or priest of Saint Peter’s Church in 1881. Mothon served the community from 1881-1884, 1887-1897 and 1902-1906.
Brother Irenee Richard looks out the windows into the garden where he once walked for hours on end saying his prayers at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston. In the background is the once vibrant but now abandoned priory, where he said the Rosary countless times.
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.
Do you have a special Easter memory or photograph from the Basilica you’d like to share? Please contact writer Julie-Ann Baumer at [email protected] or at 207-353-2616.
The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.
This fire door separates the priory from the basilica.
Alexandre Louis Mothon, front center, the first Dominican curate or priest of Saint Peter’s Church in 1881, is surrounded by the first group of Dominicans that came to Lewiston.
The priory, which once was the living quarters for the Dominican priests at St. Peter’s Church (later renamed Saints Peter and Paul Church), is now empty and used for storage.
2017 portrait of Brother Irenee Richard.
The priory, with the basilica looming large over it on Bartlett Street in Lewiston, displays its 1895 date of completion on its front.
Brother Irenee Richard looks out of the windows into the garden where he once walked for hours on end saying his prayers at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston. In the background is the once vibrant but now abandoned priory where he also said the Rosary countless times.