I’ve always wanted to visit St. Joseph’s Oratory. One of my regrets from the last time I lived here is that I never got to see this splendidly grand church on the hill. I would gaze upon it from a number of vantage points in Montreal, and wonder exactly how to get there. Let me tell you, it was amazing, but not exactly in the way that I had preconceived.
Parking at the Oratory costs $5 – ok. The strange thing was that we handed over our fiver to a guy who looked sort of shabby with a plastic container who was standing beside the little collector’s box and saying thank you very politely when we handed him the money. Was he the legitimate parking attendant? He did have a lot of cash in the container, so he probably was. At two-million visitors a year, the church does well on it’s parking.
From the outside, the building is very impressive. Looking up I kept thinking about how difficult it must have been to lug all the materials up the hill. The church is huge and gorgeous, and the green copper Basilica roof looks remarkable against the blue sky.
We walked up the stairs (the stone ones were blocked off for the winter, so we walked on the wooden ones in the middle) and upon entering, we passed through a couple of hallways until we arrived at the votive chapel. This is where people can pray and light a candle; the whole room glows. Hanging in a few spots were also a number of old wooden crutches and canes (and one prosthetic foot). I spoke with a nun who told me that those were left behind by those who were healed by Father Andre because he lived with God. They did look charming and haunting perched in the candlelight, and I wondered how many pairs there actually were. There were individuals repeatedly replacing the burnt out candles, which in and of itself could be a full-time job. Behind the Joseph votive area (as pictured above) is the tomb of Father Andre. It is like a little walk-through cave with guest books and fluorescent lights in the entry way.
Then we saw the sign to the elevator (yes, an elevator in a church) which was located beside some damp rock walls covered with wire. We really wanted to see the Basilica, so we hit floor number 4 (which was the highest we could go) even though it said The Heart of Brother Andre. Little did we realize, this was not a symbolic idea but a literal truth – Brother Andre’s embalmed heart is in a box on the 4th floor of the church, encased in glass. Father Andre apparently asked that his heart be left in the church to protect the Basilica. There are also a couple of Brother Andre wax replicas (also behind glass) sitting at a table and looking out the window.
Then it was up the escalator (yes, this church has an escalator) and then two flights of stairs (past the Museum / Gift Shop and the snack bar) to the Basilica. The dome is one of the largest in the world, and it is surprisingly modern inside. What struck me was that here are no pews, just metal chairs attached together in rows. Practical, sure, but it definitely affected the atmosphere. We took pictures of the Stations of the Cross carvings which were almost life-size and again, quite modern for a church that is 100 years old.
Almost done the tour, we headed back down the stairs and the escalator to the lookout, which had a great view of the city. This was the strangest church experience I had ever had, but I still enjoyed it. I learned a lot about Canadian history and about a monument that exists and flourishes from prayers and the embers of one man’s abundant faith.