Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in history, poetry and cultural tourism

LEWISTON, Me-  It’s typical for coincidences to occur in triplicate. This memorable trifecta cliché came to mind, when a cluster of serendipitous occurrences raised my awareness about how Lewiston’s beautiful Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul has contributed to Franco-American heritage. As a matter of fact, the Basilica’s history has hosted thousands of generational transitions for Maine families.

Le Messager donated by Lewiston native Donat Veilleux

A 1938 edition of Le Messager was donated by Donat Veilleux of Lewiston. Merci beaucoup!

In my mind, the magnificent spires on the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul are significant for more than their architectural stature.

In fact, the Basilica is an uplifting image on the Lewiston skyline, because the large spires can be seen from nearly every part of the city.  People are curious to see the inside of the Basilica. Even those who regularly attend Mass are in awe of the sanctuary’s loveliness and the beautiful spiritual stories told in the stained glass windows.

Therefore, it came as no surprise to learn how the Basilica and its Franco-American history were identified as the highlight of the “Franco Tour L-A”, after the participants’ evaluations were reviewed, following May’s trial run of the cultural trolley tour. Its certain to remain at the top the places of interest to see, on Lewiston’s cultural tourism map.

Donat Veilleux with copies of Le Messager

Donat Veilleux of Lewiston donated two vintage copies of Le Messager to the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC) and they will be added into the Franco-American Collection.

Coincidentally, just a few days after the meeting about the tour’s evaluations, the Franco-American Collection archives at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College received the 1938, commemorative newspaper donation of Le Messager, published when the Basilica was dedicated  The entire French language newspaper is packed with information about the Basilica’s history and includes numerous congratulations advertisements to honor the Dominican priests who attended to the parish, at the time. Donat Veilleux, a Lewiston native and resident who makes a hobby of collecting antiques, personally delivered the donated newspaper to the Collection at USM, on Westminister Street. Additionally, Veilleux donated the first section of the June 1941, Le Messager, when the headlines reported about the World War II, invasion of Normandy, France.

At the Collection, the Board is grateful for the commemorative edition donation, particularly because the wonderful (now vintage!) photographs contain the identifying names for the Dominican priests and other community leaders, who are pictured in the images.

Saints Peter and Paul commemorative book.

A commemorative book about the history, art and architecture in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

And then, a lovely reflective poem about how the Basilica has symbolically transcended generations, written by Lewiston native and University of Maine student Daniel Moreau, published in the spring edition of the University of Maine quarterly Le Forum.  In the prose, Moreau puts the Basilica at the opening of a dialogue he has with his father, following the funeral of his memere.

Published with permission:  Generations by Daniel Moreau

Bong….Bong…Bong….

The bell rang out from the Saints Peter and Paul steeple, looking over the city on a cloudy fall day.

Friends, family and strangers calmly march to their cars with their jackets draped over their forearms.

Crows fly around as if to mock the dead

The last of the Landry Silent Generation no more.

Stories there were never told, will never now.

The question kept stabbing at me…was who I really am connected with my last memere?

I asked my father, “Why did you never teach me French?”

He responded, “If you want to, take a class.”

“No, not that kind of French…I mean our french, the French you spoke when you were my age.”

He went silent for a second

I wanted you to be an American.”

“I don’t feel like one though, football doesn’t interest me, I was never a fan of hot dogs. I felt like I was learning someone else’s history in my History classes, when I see pictures of New York, or

Los Angeles, or Washington DC I feel nothing….I don’t feel ‘patriotic’ at all.

I’ve heard stories and I’ve seen the pictures of how memere lived

And whenever I do, I lived what she did and then I feel belonging

I was born into blood and I’ll never want or be able to dissolve into water

I’ve tried to learn French at school but it was never the French our family spoke

And when you failed to pass it on to me, you lot it to time

It was something I could be and belong to and you’ve taken it away from me

And I don’t know how and if could forgive you for that.”

“So, you think you’re the only one?

40 years ago I would speak my native tongue in school and be disciplined for that

I was punished for existing as myself.

A slap on the wrist for a word in french

And then there were those who wanted us to be Americans

We would pray, and they would burn our cross

We would speak French and they would say to speak white.

They eat the French out of me

I did the only thing I could do and that was to comply

So I became an American

And I did the same thing for you and your siblings

Because I’m protecting you too

I’m protecting you from a life of hate

I took those experiences from you so you can be who you want to be.”

Who I want to be is Franco-American.

I don’t care if I’m told to speak white. I’ll say whatever I want to

I don’t care if I’m beat down. I’ll stand up straighter

I don’t care if I’m called a frog. I am a frog. And I’m proud of that.

I’m proud to be who I am

And no one can take it away from me

Footnote:  Obviously, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul symbolically transcends Franco-American history in the present, as a focal point of the Franco-Trail L-A tour, and generates enthusiastic interest among those who want to protect the church’s history, while continuing to inspire future generations, who are proud to identify themselves as Franco-Americans.

*speak white – A six-minute film released in 1980, is a montage of photos and the reading of the French-language poem written by French-speaking Quebecer Michèle Lalonde. The term was a slur, intended to denigrate French-Canadians.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.