Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
Father Robert D. Lariviere, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Auburn, served at Saints Peter and Paul Church from 1999 through 2008. He was involved in the restoration project and remembers the restoration committee was of one mind about how visitors and parishioners would experience the changes to the space. Lariviere said the vision for any change to the original structure was that it would “leave people with the impression that it could have been built this way.”
The Basilica’s baptismal font, centrally located at the nave entrance, is not original to the building, though it looks that way. It was added during the restoration and completed prior to the church’s elevation to a minor Basilica in 2005.
Components of the upper church’s original architecture were incorporated into the font. The bowl, which is new, is carved of Italian marble and sits atop the Solomonic columns and Corinthian capitals that were part of the original side altars. These same columns and capitals were used on the new altar and create a unifying line of sight from the entrance to the altar. Pews were removed to make room for the font.
The creation and installation of the baptismal font was done by Rambusch Decorating Company, a century-old business founded in New York City, known for decorating elaborate movie theaters of the 1920s as well as historic renovations. The company today employs designers, artisans and engineers who are expert in lighting, furnishing, stained glass, mosaics and restoration.
Historically, baptisms occurred outside of the church. The Baptistery of Saint John, located in Florence, Italy, dates to 1059, and is a separate structure from the Florence Cathedral.
Following the dedication of Saints Peter and Paul Church in 1938, baptisms were primarily performed in the space that now includes Director of Music Scott Vaillancourt’s office. The area, called the Blue Chapel, was on the monastery side of the church and included a much smaller font. Baptisms could take place at any time, however, Bob Gilbert, Basilica historian, noted many baptisms were performed on Sunday afternoon, following Mass.
Due to higher infant mortality rates, babies were baptized as soon after birth as possible. While the mother recovered, a family relative or close friend would be the “porteuse” or person designated to carry the baby to church. The godmother and godfather would stand ready to assist the newly baptized infant “on the road to Christian life,” per the 2nd edition Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the priest would pour or sprinkle water from the font over the baby’s head.
Gilbert himself says he was born on a Saturday and was baptized the next day, on Sunday afternoon. His wife, Pauline Gilbert, was born on Sunday morning and was baptized that same Sunday afternoon.
Also notable was the number of babies baptized in the mid-20th century. Father Robert Parent noted that the Maine Franco-American Genealogical Society documents as many as 400 babies a year being baptized at Saints Peter and Paul Church during the church’s peak growth period, from approximately the turn of the century through the 1940s.
Since Vatican II, baptismal fonts have been placed inside the front doors of many Catholic churches, since baptism is considered a “welcoming” of new members into the church and the faith. It also serves to remind Christians of their own baptisms. The Basilica’s new font is larger and more elaborate than previous fonts; a portable frame with skirting can be added to accommodate immersion baptisms. A filtration system within the font keeps the water circulating at all times.
Today, the baptism of infants and adults at the Basilica remains largely the same, although they’re often done after Mass or during an Easter Vigil. There is no longer an emphasis on immediate baptism and the entire church family often participates in the Christian sacrament.
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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.