Top tourist site in Quebec displays reminders of thousands of cured pilgrims
On Westmount Summit in Montreal is located Canada’s largest church. The towering Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal stands out as a national shrine for all Canadians.
The Oratory sits perched on the summit of one of the three peaks of Mt. Royal, providing a dazzling lookout, especially picturesque during the autumn season.
A top tourist attraction in Quebec, the site welcomes more than two million visitors annually.
They visit for different reasons. Some arrive looking for immediate, miraculous cures and healings. Pilgrims enter into the darkened lower area of the basilica, light a candle and pray in earnest.
Others arrive, perhaps out of curiosity, simply observing the happenings of the shrine and admiring the experience.
Regardless of what draws one to the shrine, every person who enters notices the truly astonishing display of thousands of crutches and canes, left behind and abandoned by those purportedly healed from their ailments.
Many of these cures were from polio. Thousands flocked to pray for healings and a cure to the disease. The first polio vaccine came into use in 1955 – an answer to prayer, many would say.
It is a moving scene to watch as pilgrims arrive, many looking for a miracle. They may be gripped by paralysis or suffering the loss of muscle function in part or all of the body as they climb the stairs of the shrine.
Some are sick, some elderly, others young. Some are immobile or paralyzed, the victims of spinal cord injuries or diseases. No two faces are exactly the same.
Visiting the shrine during a picturesque snowstorm is a sight to behold. It does not stop the pilgrims, including many non-Catholics.
The Oratory is a National Historic Site of Canada rich in modern history. The man behind the story is the famous Brother André Bessette, CSC, who in 2010 was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI.
The story of St. André is an important part of Canadian history and worth retelling. He was born near Montreal in 1845, the eighth of 12 children. At the age of 12 he became an orphan after his father died from a lumber accident and his mother passed away from tuberculosis.
Brother André was a lay brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross. He is well known among French-Canadians and is credited with thousands of miraculous healings. When he died at age 91 in 1937, more than a million people attended his funeral. At the time the new Oratory was still under construction. It was completed after his death.
When Brother André was a young man, his pastor took note of his devotion and potential, which led him to present the boy to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal to be admitted for religious life. He penned a note to the superior, “I’m sending you a saint.”
Because of frail health, the order initially rejected the boy. The archbishop intervened on his behalf and André was accepted, entering the novitiate and receiving the religious name of Brother André. He made his final vows as a brother at age 28 in 1874.
Despite other duties, Brother André was given the lowly task of porter with the job of answering the door. In later years he was fond of joking, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years.”
What set Brother André apart was his great confidence in St. Joseph. This played an enormous role in his worldview and he recommended St. Joseph to all those who were afflicted in any way.
Brother André was in the habit of occasionally making sick call visits to those who had taken ill at home. He would often anoint the suffering individual lightly with oil he had taken from a lamp burning in the chapel of Notre Dame College where he worked. Then he would recommend the person to St. Joseph.
Stories of miracles surrounding the Canadian saint abound. During an epidemic when Brother André volunteered to nurse the sick, not one person lost their life. As word got out, the trickle of sick people to his door suddenly turned into a flood. This was cause for uneasiness among his superiors and diocesan authorities became concerned.
Brother André’s response was quick and sincere: “I do not cure,” he said. “St. Joseph cures.” In the end there was need for four secretaries to handle the 80,000 yearly letters received by the humble saint from across Quebec and beyond.
His great devotion to St. Joseph led him to begin a campaign for a small chapel that was dedicated to St. Joseph, the beloved saint to whom he credited all his reported miracles. The chapel, completed in 1904, was an answer to Brother André’s desire to see St. Joseph honoured.
The congregation quickly grew and soon the original chapel was too small. This led to the construction of a larger church, which was completed in 1917. That, too, with a seating capacity of 1,000 souls, was soon too small for the burgeoning community.
It was Brother André who began construction of the church seen today in 1924. The people of Montreal were being drawn to Brother André though his reputation for holiness and healings. They asked him to pray for them, and he went to St. Joseph unfailingly. As healings and miracles grew in number, word spread, and more came, seeking the consolation of prayer.
Various architects worked on plans for a mighty new church worthy of the name – a national shrine to St. Joseph.
One of these included a gifted architect who was also a priest, Fr. Paul Bellot. He completed the Oratory’s majestic dome between 1937-39. Photos at the time illustrate what an ambitious feat it was, the third-largest dome of its kind in the world.
From 1949-1951, another architect working on the project, Gilbert Moreau, carried out various alterations and improvements on the interior, as well as to the adjacent monastery. To the disappointment of many, an aggressive interior style of 1960s populist design was chosen, which many critics said collided with the noble exterior.
The mortal remains of the saint rest in the church he was responsible for building, in a tomb below the Oratory’s main basilica. His heart is preserved in a nearby reliquary.
St. André is a very fitting saint from Canada and Quebec and a powerful intercessor.
St. Joseph, pray for us! St. André, pray for us!
J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.