On the front of the altar in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is a mosaic seal with a striking image of a pelican feeding her young. It is an iconic Catholic symbol, one that is present in many pre-Vatican II churches. The message: “She’ll pierce her own breast to make sure her children are fed,” says Basilica Sacristan Mark Labonte.

According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the symbolism is rooted in a pre-Christianity legend that “in time of famine, the mother fed her dying young with her blood to revive them from death, but in turn lost her own life.” Early Christians found it to be an apt metaphor for the sacrifices of Jesus Christ and adopted the pagan image into Christianity.

The seal appears on the Basilica altar that holds the blood (wine) and body (sacramental bread) of Christ during Eucharist at Mass. The earliest accounts of the pelican legend are found in “Physiologus,” a Christian text written in Greek most likely during the 2nd century. Throughout history, the pelican was used by artists from Dante to Chaucer to Alfred Lord Tennyson as a symbol of charity.

The Basilica’s main altar was made from pieces of the upper church’s original side altars and Italian marble from a storehouse in Vermont that matches the marble on the sanctuary floor. It was designed and built in Italy, including the creation of the pelican seal, according to Labonte, and a dedication ceremony was held in the Basilica on June 9, 2002.

Nobody, however, seems to know why the pelican in particular was chosen for the new altar. Perhaps this will be one small mystery that endures.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Over the next year, the Sun Journal’s photo series 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 We’ll also speak with basilica experts, and comb through historical documents, to uncover some of the 80-year-old church’s enduring myths and mysteries.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 will be archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.

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