Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
The first St. Peter’s Church, built in 1872 where the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul now stands, measured 32 feet across its nave and ran lengthwise 116 feet along Bartlett Street. It had a seating capacity of 800. As waves of French Canadians came over Maine’s northern border by train and arrived at Lewiston’s Grand Trunk railroad terminal, many ultimately joined family and friends at the red brick French church. The building must have been literally bursting at the seams.
As early as 1889, church fathers began discussing expansion plans to accommodate rapid parish growth.
Local architect Jefferson Coburn first proposed enlarging the church, extending it down Bartlett Street toward College Street and connecting it to the monastery. He also planned to widen the church.
A second and, then, a third plan proposed completely new buildings to replace St. Peter’s on the site, both consistent with the architectural tenets of the Gothic Revival style popular at the time.
The Rev. Paul-Victor Charland, an accomplished architect and priest from St. Hyacinth, Quebec, submitted his plan in 1900. For reasons unknown, his design was rejected. In 1904, Lewiston resident and Belgium native Noel Coumont submitted his plan. Similar in form yet slightly longer than Charland’s proposed church and more ornate, Coumont’s plan was accepted.
Work began on the foundation and bottom portion of the church, which came to be called the “lower church,” but, as has been well-documented, Coumont’s tenure as architect ended in 1906 amid problems and controversy. One such problem involved a 34-square-foot cave-in of the wall along Bartlett Street on Nov. 9, 1906, with little more than a month to go before the first scheduled Mass in the lower church.
Numerous beautiful features of the lower church — many still remaining today —testify to what additional grandeur the upper church might have boasted had Coumont remained on the job. However, those problems, possibly including the Basilica’s entire foundation being set on a slight tilt, sent him on his way.
At that point, funding to build the “upper church” on top of the “lower church” ran out, and it would be 22 years before well-known Boston architect T. G. O’Connell would be charged with redesigning the edifice in 1928, which went on to be completed in 1936.
O’Connell is noted to have designed as many as 600 civic and religious buildings throughout the region, but destroyed all of his records and drawings when he closed his Boston office.
It is O’Connell’s vision that dominates Lewiston’s skyline today. While it is a slightly scaled-back and less ornate version of Coumont’s design, it still remains one of the most grand and beautiful churches in New England.
With a seating capacity three times that of the original red-brick St. Peter’s Church, the Basilica measures 110 feet across at the transept and 330 feet along Bartlett Street. Squeezing such a massive building into that space, with the Dominican monastery taking a chunk of the footprint, seems miraculous no matter how many architects were involved.
Archival images courtesy of Father Antonin Plourde’s 100-year history of the church: “Cent ans de vie paroissiale SS. Pierre et Paul de Lewiston”
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.