In the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, to the right of the high altar, is a red candle that stands on a tall, gilded candlestick. “Whenever you see the candle lit, that means the real presence of Christ is in the tabernacle,” sacristan Mark Labonte explains.

Every Catholic church has a tabernacle, typically placed in the high altar. According to “Liturgical Signs and Symbols,” the first reference to the tabernacle appears in Exodus 25, and various details suggest it is a mini-Eden. If the sanctuary candle is lit, the tabernacle will be closed, indicating Christ’s presence; if unlit, it will be open. When Catholics see a lit candle and closed doors, they bow or genuflect, or show a sign of respect and servility.

In Europe, most churches were built with entrances at the west: Everyone, including the priest — who traditionally led Mass with his back to the parishioners — faced eastward. The tabernacle was also aligned to the east. Traditionally, the places Christians built for the celebration of the Eucharist faced east.

“The Sacristy Manual” by G. Thomas Ryan, which is used by sacristans at Lewiston’s basilica, contains one of many possible explanations for the emphasis on an eastward orientation: “The first Christians lived in the Mediterranean world where people saw this direction of the light as the place where good gods could be found. They interpreted this in Christian and European terms — Christ as the sun of justice or as the east. They looked for paradise in the east, and gazed eastward toward the cross of Christ in Jerusalem, in anticipation for the second coming from the east (Matthew 24:27).”

The basilica’s tabernacle, however, is not oriented to the east. Urban development and engineering in the U.S. is such that cities were not designed around churches, as they were in many European cities. Lewiston’s basilica was built long after the city had been established, and is oriented to the northwest.

According to basilica historian Bob Gilbert, who was born two months after construction was completed on the upper church in 1936 and who grew up with the basilica, the sanctuary candle and candlestick are original to the upper church and were recently refurbished.

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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