National Register of Historic Places Registration Form 1995 written by architect Russell Wright (2022 updates will be added)
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, 46 Cedar Street, Lewiston, Maine 04240, Androscoggin County
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was constructed in two phases, the basement or crypt area completed and in use by December 1907, and the superstructure, completed in 1927. The 1907 crypt area, for 20 years the church in its entirety, was rehabilitated by the church after the superstructure was built and the basement was no longer needed for masses. The basement interior was further rehabilitated into a performing arts center after the Franco-American Heritage Center nonprofit organization took ownership of the building. Rehabilitation included bringing the basement up to code including structural, fire sprinkler system, security, handicap accessibility, floor, ceiling, kitchen upgrades and a performance stage.
As both sections of the church were designed by the same architect, Timothy O’Connell, it is possible that at least the schematic design for the superstructure was completed in concert with the basement plans, as the footprint of the basement was not altered during the construction of the main section of the church. Interestingly, the present-day St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, also designed by O’Connell, was similarly designed and built over a 10-year period, 1928-1938.
St. Mary’s, as it stands today, was designed and constructed in the Late Gothic Revival style, resulting by definition in a refined, somewhat subdued and simplified composition. While most of O’Connell’s Late Gothic design work was based on the English Perpendicular style, here he combined that vocabulary with elements of the French Gothic, notably the rectangular rather than a semi-circular chancel, and the placement of the lantern over the crossing of the nave and the transept, rather than at the facade. Local tradition holds that the introduction of French Gothic design elements was in recognition of the heritage of the population the church was created to serve, many of whom were descendants of immigrants coming to Canda from Normandy. In recent articles on the church, this has given rise to the erroneous description of the church as being Norman Gothic, an 11-12th century English Romanesque style.
The church is in the typical Gothic cruxiform plan with a clerestory-lit, center-aisle nave flanked by nave arcades at the side aisles, all intersected by a cross-transept with a transept chapel at the east, and terminated by a rectangular chancel at the northern end of the church.
The entire church is constructed of quarry-faced ashlar granite (the granite from Jay, Maine) laid with flush-struck Portland cement mortar joints. The main roof is protected by slate tiles, the lower roofs at the aisles and the side entrance pavilions covered with replacement asphalt shingles. Door and window embrasures and the exceptional carved stone trim are limestone, with granite used for the entrance stairs and as weatherings at the basement water-table.
The front elevation, facing Cedar Street is dominated by a central, one-story projecting entrance pavilion defined at the edges by copper-clad pinnacle-topped square columns, the space between the columns at the height of the pinnacles bridged by an eight-bay elaborate band of carved, blind wheel tracery over heraldic shield appliques. The deeply recessed entrance has a pair of vertical planked doors hung on decorative wrought-iron strap hinges set behind a series of three receding perpendicular-style pointed arches, the leading arch three risers below the threshold of the entrance doors. Foliated capitals at the narrow columns supporting the triple arch continue as a decorative belt course that extends to the end columns of the pavilion, with the spandrels of the opening in-filled with carved blind wheel tracery duplicating that located in the wall area above, with a pair of heraldic shields set in the blank wall area above the belt course at each side. The entrance pavilion is flanked by heavy, stepped granite buttresses that rise to the top of a pointed arched three-part stained glass window centered in the facade at the choir loft level, a point eight feet below the skew-backs of the parapet-fronted gable end wall. The gable end wall is separated into three horizontal bands by courses of limestone, and is enriched by an exceptional relief sculpture of the Virgin Mary, along with applied roundels above the buttresses. Side entrance pavilions serving the front vestibule are situated at either side of the two-story high nave, terminating the one-story side aisle sections of the church. These pavilions have gable roofs perpendicular to the main roof, with parapet end walls projecting slightly in front of the massive, one-story end buttresses. The north and south elevations of the pavilions include four-part rectangular windows with carved stone tracery in the upper sections, and a bas-relief roundel centered in the wall surface between the water-table and the window openings.
The side elevations are mirror images of each other with the exception of a later pavilion at the west end of the transept. The lower sections, enclosing the side aisles and the side entrance pavilions, are protected by shed roofs that butt to the clerestory wall of the nave, and are 32 feet high at the top of the roof. The west elevation has a parapet gable end wall side entrance to the front vestibule at the south end of the church, the parapet wall terminated with granite skew-backs and provided with a lead-coated copper coping. The entrance is enclosed within a perpendicular-style pointed arched opening, with the hoodmold returning at the impost line to serve as capitals to the flush pilasters at either side. The entrance has a pair of vertical plank doors with decorative wrought-iron strap hinges, and is served by a single loaded granite stair running perpendicular to Cedar Street and enclosed by low, stuccoed side and end walls. There is a biscuit-shaped cartouche centered above the doors.
The side walls at the aisles are divided into five bays by heavy, stepped wall buttresses, with each bay occupied by a rectangular, wood-framed basement window set below the water table and a tall lancet window with stained-glass glazing in steel frames and carved tracery in the upper one-third. The hoodmolds at the pointed arched openings return slightly at the impost line to form stops. The same window design is used at the north and south walls of the pavilions that extend from the transept, each of which are terminated by parapeted gable end walls. Both end walls include a perpendicular-style pointed arched window at the level of the transept floor, flanked by segmental arched door openings. The windows have the typical hoodmolds with returns, and are surmounted by recessed, bas-relief rectangular panels. The projecting, hipped roof bays north of the transept wings have simple, rectangular window openings with paired sash.
The clerestory walls, which support the gable roof that rises to a height of 52 feet at the ridge, are divided into 11 bays by stepped buttresses that extend from the top of the aisle roofs to the eaves of the gable roof. The bay at the choir loft in the south end of the church is blind except for a biscuit-shaped bas-relief applique, the remaining bays filled by segmental arched window openings with carved hoodmolds that butt to the sides of the buttresses, except at the north bay at the chancel, where the moldings return slightly as at the lancet windows below. The clerestory windows are divided into three vertical sections, with carved tracery in the upper sections and excellent stained glass set in steel sashes.
The interior of the church is plaster, stark white at the walls highlighted by sky blue applied to all decorative moldings and details. The central aisle nave is flanked by nine bay arcades of perpendicular-style pointed arched openings, the arches resting on heavy, round columns with foliated cushion caps and round bases. The profile of the column bases is continued as a base mold around the perimeter of the interior. The low-ceilinged side aisles have exposed timber frame ceilings, five bays within shallow transverse arches that define the nine bays. The exterior buttresses at the high clerestory walls are expressed by clustered plaster pendant shafts with foliated corbels that intersect and pass through a full-length castellated band set between the nave aisle arcade and the clerestory windows.
The entrance to the sacristy at the west side of the chancel is framed with a pointed arched hoodmold that encloses a pair of heavy, carved oak doors, with open tracery at the upper panels. The hoodmold returns to create foliated corbels that sit above flush pilaster strips.
The ceiling over the nave and chancel consists of exposed timber framing, the 11 bays defined by principal rafters. The bays are sub-divided into five vertical sections that are further divided by purlins at the third points. The rear wall of the chancel contains the tall, original, elaborately carved wood altarpiece.
The Frazee Electro-Pneumatic Organ installed with great fanfare in 1934 in the choir loft has been removed from the loft and is no longer being used as of 2022. This was the note about interior changes as of 1995: Limited changes to the interior include a new floor in 1938, a new organ (located in the east part of the chancel) in 1971, and changes made to accommodate the new liturgy, including moving the altar to the front part of the chancery, in 1927.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FORMER ST. MARY’S CHURCH
St. Mary’s Church is significant for the role it played in serving the large French-Canadian population brought to Lewiston to work in the many mills, and especially for its role in serving the Roman Catholics who had previously settled in the Oxford/Lincoln streets, Little Canada area surrounding the Continental and other Lewiston mills. At the start of the 20th century only one French-speaking Catholic church served the entire French-Canadian community residing throughout the city, St. Peter and St. Paul, now known as the Basilica.
Run by the Dominican Fathers at a site on Bartlett Street, this church was considered by many residents of the Lincoln Street/Little Canada area to be too far away, especially in the winter months, for children and older parishioners to walk to church in order to attend daily mass or other services. The need for a neighborhood parish was obvious to residents and to church administrators, and well before the official announcement of a new parish to be called St. Mary’s on June 23, 1907, a group of Catholics living in the Lincoln Street/Little Canada area had formed the Sons of St. Dominic and constructed a small, frame chapel at Lincoln and Chestnut streets (building no longer exists) where daily masses were offered by priests from St. Peter and St. Paul’s.
The new St. Mary’s parish was officially established as a separate parish when two priests were sent from Augusta to Lewiston by the Bishop of Portland, arriving on July 3, 1907, and initially setting up offices in the DeWitt Hotel. The parish quickly acquired a temporary facility, whereby through a loan from the city the then-empty Oxford School (now demolished) at lower Lincoln Street and the south cross canal was made available—the first mass was held here on July 7, 1907.
This site soon proved too small for the rapidly growing parish, with the result that Sunday masses were for a brief time offered at the City Hall, finally moving to the Dominican Block on Lincoln Street. In mid-July of 1907, St. Mary’s, acting through the offices of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, acquired the southern-most mill block on Oxford Street from Continental Mill. The four-story brick structure was immediately put into use as a rectory and residence for the pastor and his assistant, and after removing all the partitions in the basement, was used as a chapel large enough to hold Sunday mass. The mill block, cut in half to accommodate the footprint of the church in August 1907, remains in use as the rectory and as a small chapel (this was written in 1995).
After an attempt to acquire a site at Lincoln and Chestnut streets opposite where the Sons of St. Dominic chapel had stood was abandoned because of costs, St. Mary’s again approached Continental Mill for help. Continental Mill responded by offering the lot at the corner of Oxford and Cedar streets and the two remaining mill housing blocks north of the block previously purchased for use as the rectory for the sum of “$1.00 and other valuable considerations.” The center block was used as a parochial school, later as a convent. The transfer was completed on August 1, 1907 (QC 211/502), and plans were immediately procured so that construction could begin as soon as possible.
The architectural firm of Chickering and O’Connell of Manchester, N.H. and Springfield, Mass. Note the architectural phases: the first phase, which was the flat-roofed crypt-like space in the basement, nine feet above grade with a ceiling height of 11 feet, amazingly under construction by August 6. The lower church was in use by Christmas of 1907, accommodating 840 members of the 825 families (with 4,230 people that included over 1200 children) recorded in the 1907 parish census, all of whom resided in the neighborhood west of Canal Street. St. Mary’s parish was expanded in 1923 to include all French-speaking Catholics living between the Androscoggin River Main and Lisbon streets and East Avenue.
Services continued to be held in the crypt until 1927, when the superstructure, designed by O’Connell and Shaw (the successor firm to Chickering & O’Connell) in 1926, was dedicated at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The unfinished main floor had been used for a Thanksgiving Day banquet earlier in the year.
Unfortunately, the years 1927-28 also signaled the beginning of the decline of the cotton mills in Lewiston, ultimately resulting in a sharp decline in the number of residents in the neighborhoods contiguous to the Continental Mill and St. Mary’s. By 1940, the parish had grown to include over 1400 families, almost all of whom lived in the immediate vicinity, but by the mid 1970s the census had been reduced to 500 families. This decline has been further exacerbated by the recent loss of a number of large tenement and apartment houses along Oxford and Lincoln streets and especially in Little Canada, and by the assimilation of the Franco-Americans throughout the remainder of the city.
Pertaining to its existence in 1995: The loss of many of its parishioners has not hindered St. Mary’s in its everyday mission, and as the focal point and symbol of the neighborhood, the church not only documents, but it also commemorates the late-19th to early-20th century Franco-American settlement at the Androscoggin River.
St. Mary’s is also significant as an important example of the Late Gothic Revival style, a style much in favor during the period for churches of this scale. Timothy G. O’Connell (1868-1955), the architect for both phases of the building, had formed a partnership with George W. Chickering that lasted from 1900 through 1911, the period when the crypt/basement was designed and built. Between 1912 and 1921, O’Connell was working on his own, but in 1924 he had taken on Richard J. Shaw as a partner, and working out of Boston, he designed the superstructure of the church. O’Connell is especially well known for his ecclesiastical work, and was responsible for the design of such important Maine churches as St. Louis (in Auburn and in Fort Kent) and St. David’s (Madawaska) while in partnership with Chickering; St. Augustine’s (Augusta) and St. Mary’s (Westbrook) as a solo practitioner; and with Shaw, St. Mary’s (Augusta and Biddeford), Sacred Heart (Yarmouth), and St. Peter and St. Paul’s (Lewiston).
St. Mary’s is also significant as major examples of the efforts of two of Lewiston’s most important construction firms, Lemieux and Chevalier, who built the crypt/basement in 1907, and Louis Malo and Sons, responsible for the construction of the superstructure in 1927.