St.Joseph’s Oratory

Sometimes, no matter how much you want to, you just can’t write and that’s what has been going on with me lately, largely because of the events in Paris last week. I had a pretty strong post coming along in my head, but after the attacks, it just seemed so trivial. I’m normally a very happy, positive, fun-loving person and I strive to reflect that here on my blog, so I suppose that’s why I got writers block. I just wasn’t feeling like myself, but I think I’ve started to work that out of my system. That and after a visit to St.Joseph’s Oratory on Monday, I knew that the Oratory was just what I needed to write about. I have always had a thing for churches and although I have visited many stunning churches in Europe, the United States and at home here in Canada, the Oratory is still my favorite. It may not be a jaw dropper in terms of its interior, but in my mind that only adds to its charm. Also, its impressive size and the number of steps there are from street level up to the Basilica on the top floor makes the competition look silly ”You’re flamboyant neo-gothic? Well, I have 283 steps up to my front porch, so there!”. And fear not, if stairs are not your thing, there’s a shuttle bus to replace the first 99 stairs. It gets you to the main entrance level and then there are escalators and elevators inside, or more staircases. They just want to make sure there’s something for everyone, you know?

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St. Joseph’s Oratory seen from street level in early Spring.

So, how did we end up with this beautiful shrine in Montreal? It all started with this fella, Brother André.

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This bronze statue of St. Brother André can be found beside what is left of the original Oratory.

He came to Montreal in 1870 to join the Catholic order of Holy Cross brothers, whose novitiate was housed in Notre-Dame-Du-Sacré-Coeur College (that’s a private high school, we call them colleges here in Québec), just across the street from where the Oratory is now.

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A partial view of Notre-Dame-Du-Sacré-Coeur college all decked out for Christmas. The school has existed on its present site since 1869.

The brothers almost didn’t keep Brother André past his novitiate because of his frail health, but the bishop of Montreal at the time, Mgr. Bourget, intervened on his behalf after being impressed by André’s piousness and his strong desire to remain with the order and he took his perpetual vows in 1874. Lucky for the Order that the Bishop intervened, because Brother André turned out to be more than just your average Brother! His health was delicate (he was born with an undiagnosed stomach ailment that stayed with him throughout his life and prevented him from eating normally) and he didn’t have the necesary education to teach like the other brothers, so he was made the porter of the school and its Jack-of-all-trades. His tasks included helping out in the infirmary and one day a rumor started going around that a seriously ill student had been inexplicably and suddenly cured after Brother André had sat with him and they had prayed to St. Joseph together. St.Joseph, that’s a statue of him in the picture below, is a Saint of the Catholic church who is known for curing the sick and infirm, among other things.

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The Statue of St-Joseph that stands in the Oratory’s Votive chapel. The chapel holds 10 000 votive lamps and this stand alone contains 3500. Each candle that is lit in the chapel represents the prayer of a pilgrim.

Now, St.Joseph is a pretty popular guy and yes, that’s the same Joseph as the one made famous for marrying the virgin Mary and raising Jesus, so when word started getting around that Brother André seemed to have some sort of a direct line to him, people started showing up at Notre-Dame College asking for him. When he was at his doorkeeper’s post that wasn’t too much of a problem, especially at first when there weren’t too many pilgrims (people who travel somewhere specifically for prayer), but French Canadians in the late 19th Century were a pretty pious lot and soon the parents of the boys living at the school began complaining to Brother André’s superiors about the pilgrims who were taking the liberty of wandering around the school in order to look for Brother André when he was not in his porter’s cell. The issue was that a lot of these people were suffering from, or had been in close contact with people who were suffering from infectious diseases which were very difficult to treat at the time, such as influenza, diphtheria, scarlet fever, polio and tuberculosis and there was legitimate fear of the boys who boarded at the school being contaminated by germs. The Holy Cross order and Brother André knew that turning Pilgrims away not an option, so the order eventually gave Brother André permission to build a small oratory in honor of St.Joseph on a piece of land they owned across the street from Notre-Dame College. And voilà! we have the beginning of what was one day to become the largest shrine in the world dedicated to St.Joseph!

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The 1904 (behind the steeple) and 1910 (from the steeple frontwards) sections of the original oratory.

Cute, isn’t it? There was a problem though, Brother André only had 200$, which us equivalent to about 5o00$ nowadays, with which to build his Oratory. He put every last penny he had saved giving 5 cent haircuts at the College over a 34 year period to get the chapel built and it was too small. The oratory opened its doors for the first time on October 19th of 1904 and by Winter the pilgrims were showing up to see Brother at Notre-Dame again because there was only room for 8 people at a time in the chapel and even if they could get inside the building, it was unheated. Brother André and a few of his most loyal friends began collecting donations and in under six years they were able to not only install a wood burning stove but also to enlarge the Oratory twice, first to seat 50 people and then 200. The building was still prone to chronic overcrowding however, so Brother André and his friends continued to raise funds and in 1914, work began on the Crypt-Church, which opened in 1917 and could seat 750 people. To this day, it is the busiest church on the site and the busiest Catholic church I know of anywhere in Canada. There are 7 to 8 masses a day said at the Oratory and all of them except for two on Sundays are said in the Crypt-Church.

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The choir section of the Crypt-Church seen during a concert. The Crypt-Church gets its name from the fact that the Basilica was originally planned to be built directly on top of it, so it has a low ceiling supported by flattened steel arches.

Brother André knew that the Crypt-Church wouldn’t be able to hold all the masses of Pilgrims flocking to the shrine to pray St-Joseph for long though, so in 1924 work began on the Basilica, a huge church that could originally, before seats were put in and crowd regulation laws were put into place, hold 10 000 pilgrims. The Basilica took 43 years to complete because, as with the rest of the enlargements to the original shrine, it was built with donations and it was first a victim of the Great Depression and then of shifting values. It was opened for its first service in 1955 and Brother André, who passed away in 1937 at the age of 91, never got to see it completed. The interior of the Basilica was completed in 1967 in a Medieval inspired Art Deco style.

Nowadays, the Basilica seats 1 750 pilgrims on a regular Sunday, or 1 870 when chairs are added in for special occasions. Mass is said in the Basilica on Sunday mornings at 11:00 A.M. with music provided by its impressive 5811 pipe, 78 stop Beckerath organ and its boys’ choir the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal and again at 12:30 P.M. It is also used for major feast days such as Christmas, Easter and St-Joseph’s feast day on March 19th. Otherwise, seeing as regular weekday masses are attended by anywhere between 50 to 200 pilgrims at a time, the Crypt-Church is used.

All this talk of overflow may make the Oratory sound like a very busy place, it is actually very, very peaceful and there is a beautiful energy that surrounds it as soon as you set foot inside the grounds. I’m very, very fortunate to have such a beautiful place in my neighborhood and I have been to it many, many times when I was in need of comfort and peace. If ever you are in Montreal, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to visit the Oratory, even though it is a bit off the beaten tourist trail. It is quite easy to reach by public transit since two bus lines stop right in front of it (the 51 and 166) and a very major bus line stops just one corner away (the 165-435 line, the second number is the express number for rush hour). Don’t pass up a chance to visit this unique place, because believe me, you will be sorry! And yes, as with the rest of the city, it is beautiful year-round!

Now, a note about the photos in this post: you will have noticed that they are watermarked with my real name. The reason for this is that I have put some of my photos up for sale on a decorative print producer’s site that is local to Quebec photographers, but ships all over the world. When doing this, I was strongly encouraged to create a photography website, which I did. Please, feel free to visit it here and follow it! Having to watermark my photos twice was such a major hassle that I decided to bite the bullet and put my name on here. I refrained from doing this before because while I don’t care if my family knows that I have a photography blog, there are a very, very few members of my family who have been quite nasty to me on social media before, so nasty that I blocked them from my Facebook account. I don’t need that sort of grief on here when it comes to my writing and opinions. If it’s from some random reader I won’t ever have to meet face to face, I don’t care, but nastiness from family is a bitter pill to swallow, especially when you occasionally have to sit down at the same dinner table as them, hence the pseudonym. I’m keeping it on my Gravatar account and have a seperate Gravatar and e-mail address for the photography blog, so I should be good, but I just wanted to clarify the change with you folks!

 

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