Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Construction on the upper church of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul began in 1933 and finished in 1937, 80 years ago. After work on the exterior of the structure was completed, Casavant specialists came to Lewiston to install the organ, according to basilica historian Bob Gilbert. 

Casavant Freres is a world-renowned pipe organ builder founded in 1879 in Saint Hyacinth, Canada. “Louis Malo Construction company was the contractor and the Casavant organ was very popular as far as organ builders because they built the one in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. They were a very reputable firm,” Gilbert explained.

When the organ was installed, the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, which ran from 1929 to 1939. Like other U.S. manufacturing cities, Lewiston was hit hard by the long-lasting economic downturn, and local production remained stagnant until the start of World War II in 1941, which jump-started defense contracting.

Despite that, the parishioners were able to raise the funds to finish the upper church and construction put many unemployed local Mainers to work. Aside from the Casavant organ, “all of the other people and materials were from Maine,” Gilbert said. “Everything in the church is cedar or oak from Maine.” 

The Depression was particularly cruel to artists and artisans whose work was not considered crucial. “The Casavant guy asked, ‘Do you have anybody to do the woodwork (inside the upper church)? I can keep my guys busy because they’re craftsmen.’ That’s why we ended up with some beautiful woodwork in this church,” said basilica sacrisant Mark Labonte.

Gilbert agreed with Labonte’s historical account. “The (Casavant Freres) had the technicians and people who were experts in woodwork.” In the 1930s, few Casavant organs were being installed and the highly skilled Casavant craftsmen were unemployed and available. As a result, they were commissioned to carve and finish all of the interior wooden design work, which began in 1937 and took another year and a half to complete. 

There are differing accounts about how the Casavant woodworkers were compensated, whether solely with room and board or a small fee. There are no parish records detailing payments, but Gilbert believes that despite the Depression, the woodworkers were given paychecks. “I would assume that they were paid, but there’s no documentation of that,” he said.

There may be written accounts or receipts in Dominican records, but the Sun Journal could not confirm this with the provincial office in Montreal, Canada. 

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

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.

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