Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

LEWISTON — Watch maintenance supervisor Dave Cyr flipping through a computer screen that shows him data about nearly every room in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and it’s easy to think he’s eyeing a streamlined, modern system.

He can see the temperature and humidity level all through the colossal Ash Street church. He can schedule when to turn the heat up, when to blow air out of ducts high above the pews and much, much more.

Cyr can even do it from home or, really, anywhere. It’s all online.

But peer behind the high-tech curtain and it’s a whole lot more interesting.

For one thing, the system said the other day that the children’s liturgy room was 272 degrees, enough to boil away a pot of water, definitely a tad warm for little ones.

Cyr said when he first saw that unchanging figure, he searched the Basilica for the room, wondering what was going wrong. It turned out there is no such place. It’s just a glitch he can safely ignore.

But it’s not the computer software that actually makes anything happen. All through the structure there are steam pipes, air ducts, water lines, electrical wires and all sorts of underlying mechanicals that keep the place humming day after day, year after year.

Central to the Basilica’s ability to operate in a city where winter temperatures can dip far below freezing are two gigantic Burnham boilers tucked away in a sub-cellar that’s actually under the priory attached to the church.

Now burning natural gas — and potentially oil as well — the furnaces used to depend on coal dumped through a door in the side and stored in a brick room just beyond the boilers. The coal is long gone, but a long-handled shovel that somebody once used to feed the fire remains.

They’re off in the summer, but sometime in September or October, whenever the weather shifts toward winter, Cyr will flip them on so they can produce the steam that flows through a bewildering mishmash of pipes running through the church’s floors, walls and ceilings.

When they’re running, the boilers heat most of the building to a chilly 50 degrees, Cyr said, trying to conserve fuel and save money. But when a room is going to be used, he turns up its heat hours ahead of time so that it is 64 or 65 degrees by the time anyone needs the room.

For the upper church — the biggest room in the church, with a towering ceiling — he typically turns up the heat at 6:30 a.m. to get it warm enough for an 11 a.m. funeral in winter. “It heats up pretty quick,” Cyr said.

There’s also a huge dehumidifier at work in the church.

If it stopped on a humid day, Cyr said, the floors would be “soaking wet” by the time he arrived for work at dawn.

There are sensors and exhaust points in many places to ensure any hitch is noticed quickly.

If you think of the Basilica as a huge house, it’s easier to envision some of the stuff that’s needed to keep it operating, from electrical conduits to water pipes, which are really just longer and more numerous than many other buildings’.

But there are differences, too.

In the basement, for instance, are so many little tunnels they make up something of a maze.

“I haven’t been in there,” Cyr said, “because I haven’t got a string long enough” to follow it back to the entrance.

Or imagine when a light bulb goes out. At home, it’s typically no big deal to replace it.

But stand in front of the Basilica’s high altar and look up at the ceiling and you’ll see way up there is a small circle with a light bulb smack in the middle of it. It’s 1,000 watts, “a big, big bulb,” Cyr said.

And to change it, somebody has to squirm through a narrow corridor above the vaulted ceiling, pull up the fixture — leaving a gaping hole beneath that would make for a very long fall — and switch out the bulb. It takes two or three hours.

And those chandeliers that hang over the pews with a bunch of bulbs in each? To change a burned-out bulb, they are cranked down to the floor below — another lengthy, difficult process.

There are so many lights, in fact, that the Basilica had to add an external generator to keep them all burning bright. Though the electrical lines coming into the building bring a lot of power, it’s not quite enough.

For holiday services, big funerals and other major events, Cyr said he turns on the generator to make sure there’s enough juice to keep everything lit. He said he experimented once to see if it was really necessary and found that half the lights in the main church remained off without the generator running.

It’s not just electricity church leaders have to worry about. The one big water line running into the building through the priory has a heating  unit on it to make sure the water doesn’t freeze on those cold winter days.

But some of the building’s other infrastructure really is pretty high-tech.

A Generation 4 Electronic Carillon that hangs on the wall of a hallway near the altar actually produces the sound of bells that is broadcast through huge speakers mounted up in the bell towers, where the old bells are plunked on the floor unused.

And there’s a wireless intercom system in a big, locked cage tucked away near the altar that looks something like a small recording studio with all sorts of audio equipment. The dual cassette tape deck that’s part of the stack, though, gives away that it’s not as modern as it otherwise appears.

It broadcasts a signal to speakers mounted on the columns inside the church so that every word spoken or sung into a microphone can be heard by everybody inside.

Since nobody comes to the Basilica to think about huge furnaces, insulated pipes, valves, blowers and other gadgets, Cyr said he’s careful to turn off any of the machinery that can make bangs, clangs and other unwelcome noise during services.

But rest assured, all that stuff is there, hidden away, doing its job.

[email protected] 

This two-boiler system in the sub-basement provides heat for the church and the priory, replacing three separate and aging boilers that once rested there.

A breaker box in the basement of the Basilica controls some of the building’s electrical needs.

These heaters near the entrance to the nave in the Basilica are two of many that provide heat to parishioners, turned on automatically well before they arrive.

Heating pipes snake through tunnels in the Basilica.

Dave Cyr, maintenance supervisor, looks at a computer screen that lets him know the conditions inside nearly every part of the Basilica.

These components control exterior lights at the Basilica.

Electrical wiring must go to all areas of the Basilica, including this passsageway to one of the bell towers, in order to provide light.

Dimmer switches control lighting at the Basilica.

Systems have been upgraded over the years at the Basilica, evidenced by these defunct electrical panels in the basement.

An older electrical panel in the Basilica.

The Basilica’s two boilers sit in the sub-cellar, below ground, providing heat for the church’s Masses and other functions. 

Electrical conduit and water pipes leading to and from a water heater hang on a brick wall in the sub-basement of the Basilica.

Comments are not available on this story.