For the past eight months, I’ve been writing a series of articles for the Lewiston Sun Journal about the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. These articles are archived online and you can read them there.
How I got involved in this work is a long and ironic story, interesting only to myself and a close circle of friends and fans. Nevertheless, since my first article ran on February 12, 2017, the massive granite edifice has lived “rent free” in my head and I’ve learned so much about the building, the city, and the generations of French Canadians and Franco Americans who consider this church their spiritual home. Six article remain in the series.
The Basilica story is a long and complicated one. In the local narrative, it’s often called “the lunch bucket church” or “the church built with nickels and dime.” That’s how a narrative is created. Someone uses an overly simple expression to describe a complex person, place, thing, or situation and “voila.” The narrative.
Create a narrative and many loads of new and contrasting documentation can’t change it. Like a sound bite, it’s very difficult to overcome the damage of narratives. Worse, truth is sometimes layered over a lie and the damage of misunderstanding is compounded.
Here is an example from the Basilica.
One of the important source documents I’ve clung to in my research is Father Antonin Plourde’s Cent ans de vie paroissiale, written in 1970 for the 100th anniversary of the Dominican Brothers’s service in Lewiston. Father Plourde documented that construction of the upper church began on May 23, 1934. He wrote “La nouvelle eglise necessite 515 wagons de granite de North Jay.”
Looking at it quickly, a non-francophone might think 515 “wagons” of granite. 515 wagons of granite became “the narrative” and you can find this description in many historical accounts of the Basilica’s construction.
The word “wagon” connotes an image. I see a horse pulling a wagon. But it was 1934 and no one was moving things around Lewiston with wagons. After researching the North Jay granite quarry and their granite delivery system, I know the granite arrived by train car to the railroad terminal once located on Bates Street in Lewiston. There were also a number of stone-related businesses located there.
Was it 515 train cars full of granite? I think so. My research confirmed the granite was marketed, sold, and delivered in train cars in 1934. 515 carloads of granite are much more than 515 wagon loads and that sounds about right for such a massive structure.
Did you know not all of the granite came from North Jay? No, me neither. Not until I started pulling apart Father Plourde’s history. But it’s true. The edifice of the lower church, or the “crypt” was built with Norridgewock (Maine) granite, mostly likely from the Dodlin Hill quarry.
I’m exploring the construction of the lower church this week and next as we race into the homestretch of the series. I hope you’ll read it.