Sts. Peter & Paul Basilica
In 2000, Downeast magazine wrote an article about what was then Sts. Peter and Paul Parish (it hadn’t been designated a basilica yet) that described as best as possible an architectural masterpiece that defies simple superlatives:
“Many people – even many Mainers – don’t know about Lewiston’s own magnificent cathedral, whose great rose window was modeled after that of the cathedral at Chartres and whose heaven piercing, 168-foot-tall towers rival those of any place of worship in the Old World. Churches of all denominations abound in Lewiston; sometimes it seems as though there’s practically one on every corner, commemorating every possible saint. But this one – the largest in Maine – is impossible to miss. From its prominent site high on a granite slope, Saints Peter and Paul Church seems to dominate the whole downtown. Travelers driving through Lewiston-Auburn may see its spires disappear momentarily behind a nearer building. But then there it is again, its sheer mass towering over surrounding houses and tenements and businesses, like a massive manifestation of the Scriptures in stone, like the omnipresent voice of one’s own conscience.
“Follow those spires up to their perch on the corners of Bartlett and Ash Streets, pass through the imposing doors of golden oak below and enter into the stillness of the sanctuary within. It’s like being swallowed alive. The sheer vastness inspires awe. Granite columns soar a hundred feet upwards to an immense barrel-vaulted ceiling, through which fingers of granite trace patterns, delicate looking but actually strongly supportive. Although its structure does not strictly follow the architectural principles which made possible the great cathedrals of medieval times – steel, not flying buttresses, hold up these walls – the overall effect is decidedly Gothic. Brilliant stained-glass windows strew confetti-like gleams of red and blue across the backs of enough wooded pews to seat 2,200. High above the back of the church, rears the elegant old Casavant organ, with its 4,000 pipes, whose reverberations, according to one observer, are powerful enough “to shake the fillings right out of your teeth.” Above the organ rises the cathedral’s crowning glory, the huge rose window, which seems to hover in the semi-darkness like an immense, multi-hued jewel. “Its scale, as well as its commanding location, emulate the way the medieval cathedrals dominated their own communities,” says Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “Certainly this church was central to the lives of the immigrants who lived in this community, but as important as the religious statement was the social statement it made – that these people were here to stay, and that they were capable of making a lasting and very beautiful contribution to the city as a whole.”
“One of the most striking – if subtle – aspects of the interior occurs in the cathedral’s splendid, nearly 300-foot-long center aisle: toward the altar there is a slight – and totally unexpected – bend in it. To this day, there is a great debate over why the bend is there. Some say that it is due to a mistake made in the digging of the foundation, which was overseen by the original architect Noel Coumont, a Lewiston resident who had come from Belgium. Others contend that if the bend had been a mistake, it could easily have been fixed and that it is, in fact, intentional, meant to signify how the head of Christ fell to the right when He was on the cross. Since the interior of Saints Peter and Paul is built in a traditional design, to represent a crucifix, this explanation certainly seems plausible, especially since it is also said that the center aisles of a number of old churches in Europe contain similar bends.
“If the interior of the cathedral is breathtaking, even more inspiring – if possible – is the tale of devotion and immense effort that built the place. Unlike the age-old cathedrals in Europe, Saints Peter and Paul was constructed in this century, actually during the hardest years of the Depression. Although it had been planned for three decades, and funds for it slowly set aside, it was not until the dark times during the thirties that the parishioners made the final push to build it, holding bake sales, ball games, and practically every other community event possible to raise money. In this parish of shoe-factory and textile-mill workers, there was no great benefactors available. And so the $800,000 it took to build this cathedral was raised literally nickel by nickel, dime by dime.”
By Ellen MacDonald Ward
Down East Magazine