Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
Last week’s installment of the Sun Journal’s ongoing series on the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, which highlighted the Dominican priory in Lewiston, provided a basic timeline of the monastic order’s presence within the city. Unlike religious orders living in isolated communities, Dominicans have long been considered a “mendicant” order, meaning they live within urban areas and seek to minister to the urban poor.
Nevertheless, having a monastic order embedded within a bustling industrial city like Lewiston during the early 20th century did create an air of mystery and mysticism within the walls of the priory, or “monastery” as it was frequently called in numerous Lewiston Daily Sun and Lewiston Evening Journal articles of the past.
Consider an undated Lewiston Evening Journal article found in L/A College’s Franco Collection, presumably written sometime during Calvin Coolidge’s presidency (1923 – 1929) headlined: “Only President Coolidge’s Wife Could Enter Forbidden Walls of Dominican Monastery.”
The article began:
“If Mrs. Grace Coolidge should ever come to Lewiston, she is one woman who could enter the Dominican monastery in Lewiston beyond the public parlors. Such are the rules of the Dominican monks — the wife of the reigning head of any country is the only woman allowed in their monasteries. Mrs. Grace Coolidge, wife of President Coolidge, is the only woman, therefore who could pass the ‘papal gate’ into the intimate part of the monastery.”
The article further outlined “were another woman to pass this papal gate, the monastery would be immediately closed until a representative of the pope could re-bless the building.”
Also noted in the article were the monastery’s “valuable and interesting library and that the subjects covered by the books are varied and include several collections not to be found elsewhere in the two cities.”
According to the article, the monastery’s gardens were “better known to the general public,” because “twice a year . . . the garden is open to parishioners of SS. Peter and Paul church.”
The gardens were described as filled with trees and shrubbery, as well as flowers. The high stone wall, running along the Blake Street side of the garden was covered with vines. The article indicated “it is quite attractive now and most restful. On the hottest of days, it must be cool, for abundant shade is furnished.”
The garden as well as the monastery remained, for the most part, closed to women and the general public during the Dominican era. Mrs. Grace Coolidge never visited the monastery during her time as First Lady, though she and then-Massachusetts Gov. Coolidge attended the Bates College commencement on June 23, 1920. Not yet the wife of a reigning head of state, she would have been denied access beyond the papal gate of the building.
No first lady is known to have ever visited the monastery.
The priory, still structurally sound, is currently used for storage while the parish considers various plans for the future. The calming gardens are no longer elaborate, but they are maintained and remain a quiet spot within the city.
This undated Lewiston Evening Journal article explained to readers of the time that only the wife of a “reigning head of any country” could enter the monastery of what was then called Saints Peter and Paul Church in Lewiston. That meant the only American woman who could have entered the structure at that time was Grace Coolidge, wife of president Calvin Coolidge.
Former first lady Grace Coolidge, with husband and President Calvin Coolidge, stand outside the White House in 1924. Because of her status as first lady, Mrs. Coolidge could have gone inside the monastery at Saints Peter and Paul Church under the rules of church at that time, but never visited during her husband’s presidency.
Former first lady Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, is photographed at a ceremony with her pet raccoon, Rebecca. Because of her position as first lady, Mrs. Coolidge could have entered the monastery at Saints Peter and Paul basilica, but never did.
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 [email protected] or at 207-353-2616.
The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.