Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saint Joseph's Oratory - Montreal

St. Joseph’s Oratory is a Catholic basilica and shrine on the west slope of Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 
I had never heard of a building called an “oratory.” I think of oratory in conjunction with public speaking. Another meaning for oratory is a place of prayer or private devotion. That could apply, but I think the primary meaning in this case is a Roman Catholic church of one of the religious societies of secular priests who live in religious communities but do not take vows. St. Joseph’s Oratory is on the hill above Notre Dame College 
and started as a small wooden chapel begun in 1904 by Andre Bessette, of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Because of the number of visitors, a larger church was needed. The Crypt was completed in 1917. The basilica was started in 1924 and was completed in 1967. I love that the basilica is dedicated to Joseph, 
the husband of Mary, and ostensible father of Jesus, who generally gets short-shrift in comparison to Mary, because so little is said about him in the Bible. 
Joseph is the patron saint of Canada.

Andre Bessette was born as Alfred Bessette in 1845 and was formally canonized as a saint on October 17, 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI for his miraculous healings. St. Andre was orphaned at age 12 and went to live with his aunt and uncle. In 1872, at age 27, he was accepted into the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal and received the religious name of Brother Andre. 
He was the porter, or doorman, at Notre Dame College and also did other duties such as cleaning, bringing in firewood and acting as receptionist. Brother Andre visited sick students and others and would anoint them with oil from a lamp in the college chapel which was before the St. Joseph altar. He recommended that the sick pray to St. Joseph. Many people were cured and Brother Andre became known for his healing powers which he always deflected to St. Joseph. It was his desire to honor St. Joseph which initiated the campaign to build the chapel on the hill across the street from the college. When he died in 1937 a million people passed by his coffin during a time of bitter winter cold. His body is in a tomb below the main chapel and his heart is on exhibit in a reliquary inside, 
which he requested as a protection for the basilica.

The original wood chapel, just 15 by 18 feet, was named St. Joseph’s Oratory, and cost $200, raised by donations and haircuts given by Brother Andre for $.05 each. It still exists across from one of the back parking lots. St. Andre’s healing powers attracted pilgrims from great distances, but he never personally witnessed any of the miracles, they all happened after he had left the scene, a cause of suffering for him. There are 283 total steps up to the Oratory, 
but the middle set of 100 steps leading up the hill is reserved for pilgrims, 
who climb the steps on their knees, pausing to pray at each step, coming to seek intercession from St. Joseph and St. Andre. This is done by the pilgrims to share the pain of Christ he suffered on the cross. We saw one such pilgrim as we were leaving. St. Joseph’s now receives over 2 million visitors each year. At the top of the steps we turned left and encountered an entrance with beautiful flowers.
From there, it is possible to take another set of stairs to a higher mid-level
where there is a viewing platform
  and another level of steps up to the basilica.
Judy, with Montreal behind her.
The Votive Chapel, a corridor with votive altars, has 10,000 candles. Each altar is a tribute to Joseph, carved in stone: (a) as a model for workers; 
(b) a guardian of virgins; 
(c) a support of families; 
(d) terror of demons; 
(e) consolation of the afflicted; 
(f) hope of the sick; (g) patron of the dying; and  (h) as protector of the Church. 
These carved scenes are my favorite part of the Oratory. Between the altars are rows of crutches of those healed by Brother Andre. 
In the middle is a statue of Joseph, arms outstretched, 
and 3,500 of the 10,000 candles before him. The tomb of Brother Andre is located just off the Votive Chapel. I didn’t go inside, but Judy did, and there she found a number of nuns on their knees praying to Brother Andre. On the other side of the Votive Chapel is the Crypt, the church built in 1916 which seats 1,000 people. 
A statue of St. Joseph is toward the front. It gets its name from the flattened arches that look like a crypt which support the ceiling, as well as its place at the foot of the basilica. When we visited there were many people inside worshiping and we didn’t feel comfortable taking many pictures. As we left, an actual service was taking place, directed by a person dressed in red vestments, perhaps a cardinal? 

The basilica itself, located above the Crypt, is an enormous church as well.  
It is the largest church in Canada. 
It can hold 10,000 people standing up, or 2,200 people on folding chairs. The copper dome is the third largest of its kind after St. Peter’s in Rome and one in the Ivory Coast which is a tribute to St. Peter’s. 
The dome of the basilica is somewhat the shape of the Duomo in Florence, but much greater in size. The top of the cross on the dome is the highest point in Montreal (higher than Mount Royal’s three peaks). Behind the altar is a wood cross with several women below it. 
In a large horseshoe behind it are mosaics from the life of Jesus.
The organ at the back of the basilica has 5,811 pipes, one of which is 32 feet tall.
Modern style stained glass windows depict scenes from Canadian religious history attributable to the intervention of St. Joseph.   

The basilica also has wonderful reliefs relating to the crucifixion of Christ.

And Joseph and Mary with Jesus as a youth.

 The basilica had a large, elongated, wood carvings of the apostles.
I particularly enjoyed the carvings of Paul and Peter, which depicted Peter behind Paul.
Note the upside down cross and the rooster representing Peter and the inscription of both names at the bottom.
Finally, the basilica has a statue of Brother Andre.
We have seen many religious buildings in the last several years and this was one of my favorites. The setting on the hill is beautiful, the focus on Joseph is unusual, which made the reliefs based upon his life unusual, and the modernness of the stained glass, reliefs and other items was also much different from what we have been seeing. We could have spent much more time than we did here. It is a must see if you go to Montreal. 


  1. This was also one of my all-time favorites for much the same reasons: the unique focus on Joseph; the more modern art and its more tender depiction of Jesus; the many parts of the cathedral, each with a different theme and purpose; and those awesome steps outside.

  2. Bonnie and I visited this site MANY years ago, well before the canonization (luckily not the Cannonization) of Brother Andre. We've never forgotten the heart on display - such a unique experience! Thanks for helping me relive our visit.

  3. The heart was actually stolen and then recovered about a year later. We were a little taken back when we first saw it on display. I appreciated that we could visit for free, so many of the large churches are now charging admission. I was also impressed with the large number of worshipers. It is sad that in so many places these buildings are more of an historical curiosity than a place for current worship or spiritual insight.