This is a view rarely seen, shot from the very back of the Dominican choir at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, with its walls of intricately carved wood. File photo by Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — As a blazing inferno engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Alice Bisson-Barnes watched on her television and worried about something much closer to her native home: Lewiston’s iconic Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

Bisson-Barnes watched the fire from her home in California, but her heart has never left Lewiston, where she grew up helping with and attending hundreds of Masses during her childhood.

She returned last summer and gave public presentations on the Basilica and its history, and from afar has repeatedly asked Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland officials questions about structural and safety issues with the building, whose bottom level is more than 110 years old and whose upper church is more than 80 years old.

But after seeing Notre Dame in flames, Bisson-Barnes added a new fear to her list: Could the Basilica suffer the same fate.

It’s a question Lewiston fire officials have been trying to answer for the last several weeks.

‘MAGNIFICENT MESS’?

Lewiston Fire Chief Brian Stockdale said he and Basilica staff did a walk-through and inspection of the church on May 28 to see if there were deficiencies or areas of concern in terms of fire safety, and whether the Basilica was susceptible to a fire on the level of Notre Dame.

Lewiston Fire Chief Brian Stockdale said the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston has a steel and wood frame that, were it to catch fire, he believes “the fire spread would be similar” to the fire at Notre Dame. Sun Journal file photo

The walk-through was prompted by a letter addressed to the Lewiston Fire Department and the diocese by Bisson-Barnes.

In it, she expressed concerns about how flammable she believed the church to be, writing that the attic ceiling of the Basilica is made of wood, rather than stone, and that a fire inside of the church could spread even faster than the fire in Notre Dame.

She said that when she visited the church with her son in 2018, she noticed a “lack of fire extinguishers, standing fire hoses and sprinklers in the upper and lower churches” and an “absence of battery-operated fire escape lights and signage.”

She called the church a “magnificent mess” and urged Stockdale and the diocese to investigate it further.

After the tour, Stockdale said that at first glance, the church did not have any “glaring concerns.” He acknowledged, though, that he noticed a number of issues in the Basilica, such as a lack of lighted exit signs and certain exit routes being blocked by storage items, which are “common in other buildings we inspect.”

In terms of a comparison to Notre Dame, however, Stockdale said that if the Basilica were to catch fire, he believes the “fire spread would be similar” to the fire at the famous Paris cathedral.

He added that he was unfamiliar with what materials were used to construct Notre Dame and was basing his opinion on watching video footage of the Notre Dame fire and his knowledge of the Basilica’s construction.

Stockdale said the exterior of the Basilica is made up of stone, concrete and brick, while the interior of the church is a mixture of dimensional lumber, plaster, lathe, drywall and other combustible materials.

He said the roof and supporting structure of the Basilica is “rough-cut dimensional lumber that has been reinforced with steel braces.”

He said that “there would not be a great worry that the (Basilica) exterior would burn and demolish the building.”

“Depending where the fire started, the internal parts of the structure would burn and collapse first, ultimately leaving the external structure behind,” Stockdale said. “The priory area would sustain more damage and potential collapse, since the exterior walls are brick and not the large granite stone.”

In addition, all the pews in the Basilica are wooden, and the Dominican Choir area of the church behind the main altar is filled with wood pews and ornately carved wooden walls.

Stockdale said there is one area where a fire-suppression system has been installed: above an area in the upper church where visitors can light candles.

“That’s the only area with open flame,” Stockdale said. “There are no fire suppression systems elsewhere in the building.”

He noted the Basilica has no fire alarm system installed, and that he’s “pretty sure it’s not required.”

In terms of whether deficiencies within the Basilica currently prevent it from meeting fire code standards, Stockdale said “it’s too early to fully comment” because there are “lots of things to take into consideration.”

He said the Basilica was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and the building may have different code requirements than today’s as a result.

“I’ll have to do some research into the building to see what was required or not required when renovations were done,” Stockdale said. “We’re trying to mirror 100 years worth of code with the Basilica, which can made things difficult to figure out.”

Stockdale added that fire codes are “a bit different” for historic buildings, due to their age and unique construction. He said some historic buildings are constructed with materials unique to the time period in which they were built, and those buildings may be protected from renovations as a result.

FIRE DEPARTMENT HAS A STRATEGY FOR LARGE STRUCTURES

Interviewed a few days after the Notre Dame fire, Stockdale said the Lewiston Fire Department does not have a fire prevention plan specifically designed for the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, but does have a “set of strategies and tactics that relate to structures that are the same size and type as the Basilica.”

He said the department has strategies in place for “large structures built with varying materials, (such as) stone, concrete and wood,” and large buildings “occupied by large and small groups and located in a busy or populated section of the city.”

Stockdale said the Basilica would fall into those categories.

He said the city’s fire department has had to deal with “many large-scale events,” such as the Cowan Mill fire in 2009 and the apartment building fires at Pierce, Blake and Pine streets in 2013.

“(They) taught us a great deal,” Stockdale said. “We use training, planning and our past experiences to make sure we are as prepared as possible for any event.”

Dave Guthro, communications director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said just after the Notre Dame Cathedral fire that the diocese “always works with local fire and safety personnel,” and that “all Maine churches are naturally insured.”

“As careful as the diocese is, it can’t prevent disasters from happening,” Guthro added.

Follow-up questions about whether the diocese has a fire prevention plan for the Basilica and whether regular inspections are scheduled to ensure the building is up to code have gone unanswered for more than a month and a half. Messages left with Guthro, James Somma, the diocesan property manager, and John Cavallaro, the risk management director, were not returned.

Stockdale said that in coming weeks, he and department staff will work to ensure the Basilica meets fire safety standards so that a disaster like Notre Dame does not happen in Lewiston.

Following the May 28 tour of the Basilica, Stockdale said he let Basilica staff know what issues needed to be immediately fixed, such as the addition of lighted exit signs.

“After that, the next step will be to check in with the code enforcement office and the State Fire Marshal’s Office to get a history of the Basilica and see what codes they had to meet in the past,” Stockdale said. “Depending on what’s required, we would develop a work plan with the Basilica to help them fix it.”

He said depending on what his research unearths, “fixes could be costly,” and that a work plan would help the Basilica staff figure out how to do it in a timely manner.

Matthew Daigle — 207-689-2848

[email protected]

Twitter: @dattmaigle


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: