A special sink for the holy sacraments

One of the seldom-seen features of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is the sacrarium, a special sink in the sacristy of the Lewiston basilica marked with the symbol of a cross and guarded by a small lock. It is used solely for washing the sacred vessels and altar cloths soiled during Mass, and to receive the water that has been used for ablutions.

Since the invention of the modern sewage system, water and waste from most buildings follow a gravity-fueled path through drainage pipes into a sewer main that flows to a centralized wastewater treatment plant. On the other hand, the sacrarium in the basilica — and in other Roman Catholic churches — bypasses this system and drains directly to a hole in the ground beneath the basilica.

Catholics dispose of holy sacraments by either “burying or burning” them, according to basilica sacristant Mark Labonte. “The water used in the process of cleaning or rinsing is either dumped into the sacrarium or on the ground,” he said.

For instance, the vessels used to hold the wine during communion are washed and rinsed in the sacrarium. But great efforts are first made to ensure that none of the Eucharist — the consecrated wine considered the blood of Christ and consecrated wafers considered the body of Christ — are disposed of. “The idea is to have nothing go down the sink except for any residual from the cleaning,” Labonte said.

For that reason, following communion, the priest will drink the small amount of wine left over in the vessel. Any wafer crumbs are then brushed into the vessel, a small amount of water is added and the priest consumes that as well. 

Then, after the Mass, the vessels are washed and rinsed in the sacrarium, removing the minute particles of wine and wafers still in the vessel. Similarly, the linens used to catch Eucharist crumbs and blot any spilled wine are first rinsed in the sacrarium. Then the sacrarium is locked until “the sacred presence of Christ is gone,” according to the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Of note: It is against church law (canon 1367) to pour consecrated wine — the blood of Christ — down a sink of any sort. According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, if someone knowingly does so, he is automatically excommunicated. 

In Medieval churches, the sink was not in the sacristy, where sacred Catholic vessels and vestments are now kept, but near to or sometimes attached to the altar itself. In more rustic churches, it was simply a free-standing basin that was removed after the service so water could be poured out onto the ground.

In ancient Rome, the sacrarium referred to any place where sacred objects were kept. If you look for references to the sacrarium today, you may find yourself redirected to the Latin word “piscina” meaning “reservoir for fish.” Piscina was first mentioned in 13th-century Catholic churches and functioned as a sacrarium.

Although Medieval churches didn’t keep fish in their altar basins, the fish symbol is among the earliest emblems used for Christ. It can be found in Roman catacombs dating back to the 3rd century. During the persecutions of Christians under the Roman emperors, it is said that fish became a secret sign Christians used to self-identify.

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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