Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
In August 2001, the Historic Preservation Review Board of the city of Lewiston published a pamphlet. It was a self-guided tour of the history, architecture and culture of the city. More than 100 sites were identified, including the Basilica. The pamphlet could have been called “Look Up!” or “Common Sights Unseen,” since many of the buildings highlighted are so familiar to passing pedestrians and drivers at street-side that their beauty and significance is often missed. For instance, the First National Bank building located at 157 Main St. has a beautiful neo-Classical facade, but easy to miss in the day-to-day rush if you don’t look up. (One good place to view it is from across the street at another iconic location, the formerly ornate Peck’s building.)
So, too the Basilica. In today’s article, we look at some of the common sights often unseen at the grand church, perhaps even by church members and regular visitors. These interesting architectural features can only be seen by “looking up!”
Grotesques are often confused with gargoyles. Gargoyles, by definition, are carved stone creatures on a building’s exterior with water spouts carved through their mouths. Their purpose is to move water from the roof and away from the building’s sides. Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris is famous for its gargoyles. The Basilica has no gargoyles. But the lower church does have a number of grotesques, ghastly figures created and placed as reminders of evil. These grotesques are located outside of the present-day lower church chapel, but can still be seen perched along the outer walls. Hiding in plain sight, these neo-Gothic elements are clearly the work of architect Noel Coumont.
Another decorative and purposeful architectural element hiding in plain site is the lower church’s vaulted ceiling. Acting like buttresses, the vaulted arches provide strength to the floor and ultimately to the structure of the upper church. The arches were formed of brick and then covered with plaster; this construction replaced the need for any beams in the lower church’s ceiling.
Gothic door handles
The entrance to the upper church elevator is located in a silo-like structure on the Bartlett Street side. Earlier historical accounts of the church document that this silo was one of the entrances to the lower church prior to the upper church’s completion. A similar “silo” entrance on the Blake Street side of the church is no longer in use. While the Bartlett Street “silo” has been modified to facilitate the elevator, the Blake Street entrance is exactly as it would have been in 1907, including the Gothic door handle resembling a dragon-like creature. Yet another ne’er forgotten touch of architect Noel Coumont.
Anno 1907 door
Another often unnoticed exterior element of the Basilica, located at the rear of the church on the Bartlett Street side, is an arch over a doorway dated “1907.” Say what? Wasn’t the first Mass celebrated on Christmas Eve of 1906 in the lower church? Yes, it was. The vestry had been “hurriedly completed for the service,” as reported in the Dec. 25, 1906, Lewiston Daily Sun. But more work would be required in the lower church, and regular services wouldn’t begin until Feb. 17, 1907. A small news item in the Feb. 16, 1907, Daily Sun reported “The new basement of the French Church will be open Sunday for the first time.” The dating in the tympanum seems to imply that the crypt was considered complete in 1907.
The columns in the lower church, decoratively topped with crowns and otherworldly flowers, are not only hauntingly beautiful, but purposeful as well. When the “crypt” or lower church was built in 1906, these columns were hollow by design. But they didn’t stay that way. According to a Dec. 26, 1930 Evening Journal article, “work in preparation of the final construction will begin in the spring. At that time columns in the basement church will be filled with steel shafts around which cement will be poured and left to harden for several months before building can be started on the roof of the basement.” Visitors to the lower church should place a hand on the cool column and think of the purpose this simple and elegant structure plays holding up the entire church.
This grotesque is one of many in the lower church of the Basilica.
The vaulted ceilings in the lower church of the Basilica are not only beautiful but provide support for the massive upper church.
This original hinge on one of the exterior doors of the Basilica is considered another one of architect Noel Coumont’s many touches.
This doorway, which is original to the lower church, features the year 1907 — presenting a curiosity to those who know the lower church was used for Christmas Mass in 1906.
The many columns in the lower church that sweep to the ceiling were later filled with steel rods and cement, necessary to support the massive upper church’s construction almost 30 years after the lower church was built.
Share your memories
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.