Even from a distance away, the twin spires of Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul architecture captures attention on the city’s skyline. All eyes gaze upward when the image of the Basilica is observed while entering the City of Lewiston from any direction.
Indeed, the Basilica is an architectural inspiration made possible by the religious devotion and generosity from Franco-American parishioners, who were determined to build “the French church” in Lewiston. They were largely mill workers and Dominican religious who were dedicated to overcome challenges in their efforts to create a magnificent sanctuary, where Roman Catholics could worship, in French. Located on 122 Ash Street in Lewiston, the Basilica is an extraordinary structure, set apart from the surroundings by its Gothic architecture. Today, the Basilica continues the tradition of celebrating at least one bi-lingual French-English Mass each week and provides a place where new French speaking Mainers can worship.
Throughout the years, I’ve been honored to publish reports about various celebrations and events held at the Basilica. As a matter of fact, in recent years, I’ve witnessed an increase in the interest about the Basilica. As a result of feedback and current information, I’ve become aware of the enormous pride felt by those who are dedicated to the preservation for Lewiston’s spiritual masterpiece. Additionally, I’ve become familiar with historic and ecclesiastic resources where the Basilica is featured in online and print publications.
Writer Julie-Anne Baumer composed a series of well developed articles, whereby she researched special historic aspects about the Basilica, its structure and its builders. Her writings are now published in a beautiful full color commemorative book. Moreover, a former parishioner has become an advocate for preserving the integrity of the Basilica’s architecture and the religious community that built the impressive sanctuary, including the internal chapels and shrines. Alice Bisson-Barnes grew up in the parish served by the Basilica. Even while she is living in California, her research about the Basilica continues. Recently, she presented her research in Lewiston at a public forum. It’s obvious, after speaking with her, that she knows nearly every stone, shrine and stained glass window, inside and outside of the Basilica, like they are members of a spiritual family.
On the Diocese of Portland’s website, the history of the Basilica is described as being much more than a landmark sanctuary. Saints Peter and Paul Parish (initially named “St. Peter’s”), was founded in 1870, and is the oldest parish for the French-speaking Catholics in Maine. For the French Canadians who began arriving in Lewiston in the mid-19th century to work in local mills, the Catholic church was, next to the family, the focal point of life. Under the guidance of the Church, virtually every spiritual, social, recreational, and educational need was cared for and focused on by the community served through the church. It was commemorated in 2004, as a Basilica.
Interestingly, the history of Saints Peter and Paul parish, the church and Basilica are described as a brilliantly visible testimony to the amazing faith of the French immigrants whose struggles, patience, and great generosity built the sanctuary and inspired its intricate architecture. As a subject of historical interest, the Basilica reflects an aspect of the Franco-American immigrant experience that was repeatedly played out across the United States with many other ethnic groups. In this way, the history of Saints Peter and Paul is an invaluable chapter on the history of this nation (described on the Diocesan website).
Photographs taken during the history of the Basilica are published on the Maine History Online Memory Network, at this link. Many of the photographs published on this site were donated to the Historical Society by The Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC FAC).
During the 19th and middle 20th centuries, when the large immigration groups from French Canada arrived in Lewiston, they settled near the mills and close to the current location of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Initially, the name of the church was “St. Peter’s” or “the French Church”. After undergoing several building transitions, the current Saints Peter and Paul Church was opened in 1938. In 2004, the church was designated as a Basilica
Moreover, the builders and the founders took pride in having the best music available. Therefore, one of North America’s greatest organ builders, Casavant Frères, was hired to create an instrument that would fill the sanctuary with glorious sound. After its dedication in 1938, the Casavant Organ accompanied several community ensembles and served as a recital instrument for some of the world’s leading organists. Maintenance for the magnificent organ is an ongoing project. Recently, Lewiston’s Prince of Peace parish, the name of the “cluster” where the Basilica is one of several churches, has scheduled a series of concerts for the purpose of helping to raise awareness about maintaining the organ.
In my opinion, interest in the Saints Peter and Paul Basilica has not waned over the years. Rather, the awareness about the positive impact the structure has had on Lewiston’s history, spiritual development and culture continues, especially as new Mainers are entering the city and share in the immigration history that built the initial sanctuary. Like all the references about the Basilica agree, the impressive imprint of the Basilica’s steeples on Lewiston’s skyline are a landmark tribute to the cultural and spiritual connections the church has on Franco-Americans and new French speaking Mainers. Its history serves as a timeline for the city’s industrial history. Modern researchers and preservationists’ efforts to support the Basilica add an ongoing benefit to Lewiston’s culture and are a tribute to its hard working Franco-American founders.