“St. Peter’s Church in Lewiston was the first French speaking parish in the Diocese of Portland.” Quote from “A Shepherdless Flock“, a history of Saints Peter and Paul Parish, in Lewiston.
Among the many presenters who spoke to the Maine Task Force on Franco-Americans when we were convening, several years ago, were representatives from the Maine Office of Tourism. That’s when we learned how cultural tourism is an important percentage of the number of people who visit Maine. Although the cultural tourists are a minority in the total of Maine visitors, the facts are, they tend to stay for longer periods of time and travel to small towns.
Cultural tourists and locals who would like to visit Maine’s Franco-American sites might consider learning about Franco-American churches. In fact, the Franco-American churches were the center of the culture, French language, education and family traditions. They continue to also be where generations of genealogical source data can be researched.
Often, Franco-Americans built their beautifully spiraled and parochial churches within blocks of the Irish Roman Catholic parishes, because it was vitally important for the French to worship in their native language. Indeed, some Franco-Americans grew up thinking that anybody who prayed in English had to be Protestant! At one time, some Franco-American and Irish churches even shared the same parking lots but would seldom, if ever, attend Mass in one another’s sanctuaries.
Yet, visiting some of Maine’s most prominent Franco-American churches provides an opportunity to enjoy learning about the history of the state’s largest ethnic minority. Most Franco-Americans, about 25 percent of the state’s population, are descended from immigrants who came into the state between 1840-1950 (roughly), immigrating from French speaking Canada to work in the textile and shoe factories.
Probably, the most majestic of the Franco-American churches is the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, in Lewiston. Fortunately, I’ve been given copies of Franco-American church histories, and recommend visits to 3 churches: (a) St. Augustine Church, in Augusta, (b) St. John the Baptist Church, in Brunswick and, of course, (c) Saints Peter and Paul, in Lewiston.
Here is some of the church history about Saints Peter and Paul:
By the late 1850’s, French-speaking Canadians were flooding into Lewiston, then known as Lewiston Falls. Hundreds arrived daily by train at the Grand Trunk depot. on Lincoln Street, in Lewiston. Most were poor famers from Quebec. Their arrival created the need for French speaking priests and a church for the immigrants. Initially, French Masses were celebrated in the basement of Saint Joseph’s Church, on Main Street (this church has since been sold) until the number of parishioners attending the masses reached 1,000.
French-Canadian immigrants carried little with them except a willingness to work hard, their Roman Catholic faith and their culture. Yet, the burgeoning cotton mills on the banks of the Androscoggin River guaranteed bountiful labor opportunities. But, when it came to nurturing their faith, the newly arrived Canadians found only English speaking clergy. Like most of New England in the 19th century, Lewiston was predominantly Protestant, since its founding in 1795. Irish Catholic immigrants who came to Lewiston after the great Potato Famine of 1846, were initially served by priests who traveled from Portland, Bath or Biddeford to say Mass. As the numbers of French-Canadian immigrants were growing, it became possible to give the French-speaking Catholics of Lewiston a parish of their own. Therefore, in 1879, St. Peter’s was established as the first French ethnic parish in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. Nevertheless, the Diocese of Portland had a problem recruiting French speaking clergy. Therefore, Dominican Fathers took over the parish under the pastoral leadership of Father Alexandre Louis Mothon, OP (Order of Preachers).
Financing for the Saints Peter and Paul sanctuary (at the time it was St. Peter’s Church) was established by a parish savings bank (like a credit union), taking deposits from church members and paying them interest, thus providing capital for the construction of the church. Within 9 years, the church fund grew to $100,000. On July 7, 1872, the cornerstone of the St. Peter’s Church was laid on a parcel of land known as Ayers Hill, located on Bartlett Street, between Ash and College streets. By 1874, the parish numbered 2, 896 people, with 1,500 attending Masses every Sunday. Another piece of property was acquired on Switzerland Road in Lewiston, where St. Peter’s cemetery is located (Originally known as the French Cemetery, St. Peter’s Cemetery was established on July 1, 1876 with the acquisition of eight acres of land on the Switzerland Road, in Lewiston). By 1894, it was evident that the church was too small for the number of parishioners who attended and the architectural plans for the present sanctuary began. The Dominicans from Quebec named the new church Saints Peter and Paul.
In 2004, the Vatican designated Saints Peter and Paul as a minor basilica for its historic, social, and cultural significance. As a result, the renovated structure took on new meaning in the community. Exterior lights that illuminate the church at night make it visible from miles away.
Sometimes, cultural tours are offered for visitors and groups. I recommend attending Sunday Mass at the Basilica, to appreciate the enormous dedication of the Franco-Americans who made this magnificent church an iconic cultural and religious monument.