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St. Jospeh’s Oratory

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Montreal’s largest religious complex, and certainly the largest we’ve seen in North America, the Oratory of St. Joseph is located in the heights of Mont Royal, and enjoys commanding views over the city. With multiple chapels, an underground church, a museum, and of course the crowning basilica, the Oratory is stunning in scale, impressive even to non-Catholic visitors.

St Josophe Oratory Montreal

Jürgen and I love places like St. Joseph’s Oratory, despite the fact that we’re committed agnostics. To those of our ilk, a massive complex like this simply confounds the mind. There’s so much to see, and it’s all so surreal. St. Joseph’s isn’t a humble sanctuary in the hills, but a kind of Walmart-style one-stop-worshiping center, where believers can knock off all their religious duties for a month.

Light a votive candle, go pray in the Crypt Church, cry at the tomb of Brother André, brush up on your religious IQ in the Oratory Museum… and you might as well pop into confession while you’re here. Don’t forget to tour the stations of the cross, or to dip your fingers into the Oil of Saint Joseph (forget medicine, this is the way to beat the flu). Look, honey, they’ve got marriage counseling services, too. Maybe our relationship is failing, because you’re not praying to Saint Joseph hard enough.

St Josophe Oratory Montreal

I’m being glib, but places like the St. Joseph Oratory bring it out in me. When I see a grown woman sobbing her eyes out over the tomb of Brother André, a priest who supposedly healed the lame with his miraculous touch, I can’t help it. I just want to figure her out. “Ma’am, he died in 1937, it’s time to move on.” And then I see the hundreds of wooden crutches on the walls, no longer needed by their owners, because of Brother André’s magic hands. “Maybe I was wrong, maybe miracles are real!” And then I see the preserved heart of Brother André, and it’s like, “No, I was right. This place is nuts.”

But say what you want about organized religions; they really do produce incredible buildings. The basilica which crowns the oratory was opened in 1955, and is a thing of beauty. A cavernous hall with capacity for over 10,000 souls. An exterior dome which at 263 meters over sea level is the highest point in Montreal. A set of ten gorgeous stained-glass windows that illuminate the myriad ways St. Joseph has protected Canada. The twelve apostles memorialized in elongated statues by French master Henri Charlier. A massive organ which fills the hall with harmony. It was almost enough to make us fall to our knees.

St Josophe Oratory Montreal

We also enjoyed the mid-level Oratory Museum more than we expected to. The permanent exhibit features life-sized wax sculptures of the Holy Family and moments from the life of Joseph. And there’s also a collection of nativities from around the world; it was instructive to see how various cultures interpret the same scene.

Location on our Map
St. Joseph’s Oratory – Website

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May 11, 2016 at 10:53 pm Comment (1)

St. Patrick’s Basilica

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It might not surprise you to learn which group of immigrants built Saint Patrick’s Basilica. It was the Irish, who began arriving to Canada in the early nineteenth century. Set atop a hill in downtown Montreal, the imposing Gothic Revival church was completed in 1847.

The 1800s weren’t exactly good times in Ireland, with problems like overpopulation, famine, and tyrannical British rule forcing a huge percentage of the island’s population to leave home. Montreal was a natural choice for immigration: it wasn’t too far away, and the Irish felt comfortable in the mostly Catholic city. It didn’t hurt that French Canadians were just as antagonistic toward England as the Irish themselves.

From about 1815 on, thousands of Irish men and women arrived to Quebec every year; in 1847, the year of the Great Famine, over 100,000 made the journey. They went to work on the Montreal’s various construction projects, such as the Queen Victoria Bridge and the Lachine Canal. The city still has a huge percentage of residents who identify as Irish, and throws one of the continent’s largest Saint Patrick’s Day parades.

The first church in which the Irish congregated was the Notre-Dame des Bon-Secours, but that was soon too small for their growing numbers, and funds were raised for a new church to be built on a hill on the outskirts of the city. Today, Montreal has grown, and Saint Patrick’s Basilica is in the middle of downtown, enclosed by some of Montreal’s tallest skyscrapers.

The Gothic facade of the church is severe, with a jagged, grim countenance, but the interior is a different story entirely. Yellow-tinged stained-glass windows bathe the church in a warm light, and there’s art everywhere you look. Around the walls, you’ll find over 150 paintings of various saints, including St. Kateri Tekakwitha (Canada’s first aboriginal saint), along with fourteen large paintings which represent the stations of the cross.

Even the marble columns which support the church are noteworthy, especially when you realize they’re not marble at all. These are actually massive pieces of pine, each twenty-five meters high, which have been painted to resemble marble. Another interesting item in the church is a piece of bone from Saint Patrick himself, stored within a small side chapel next to the altar. (Catholicism’s macabre love for human relics has always baffled me.)

Leaving their homes behind and journeying to the New World surely wasn’t an easy thing to do, but Montreal’s Irish newcomers must have been pleased to have a church as beautiful as Saint Patrick’s in which to worship.

Location on our Map
Saint Patrick’s Basilica – Website

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May 2, 2016 at 7:17 pm Comments (0)

The Notre Dame de Bon Secours

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Known as the “Sailors’ Church,” the Notre Dame de Bon Secours is one of the oldest churches in Montreal, originally built in 1771. Its founder was Marguerite Bourgeoy, a woman of deep faith whose life story is celebrated within a museum attached to the church.

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Because of its location on the port, the Notre Dame de Bon Secours has long been a place of pilgrimage for sailors passing through Montreal. After having survived a particularly dangerous journey, many of these sailors would return with votive offerings in the form of model ships, twelve of which are now hanging from the church’s ceiling, suspended a few meters above the floor.

The church was the brainchild of St. Marguerite Bourgeoy, a deeply spiritual woman who had arrived in Montreal along with the first settlers. She’s known for founding one of the Catholicism’s first communities of uncloistered nuns. It was controversial at the time, but Marguerite reasoned that she and her sisters could better help their vulnerable settlement by actively engaging with it, instead of sequestering themselves away. She took it upon herself to educate both settlers and native children, and established the fledgling town’s first schools.

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In honor of her remarkable life, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1983, becoming Canada’s first female saint. Her tomb can be found within the church, and it’s worth touring the small museum dedicated to her. In one room, Marguerite’s life has been reconstructed in a comic-book-fashion, with nearly a hundred small panoramas that detail everything from her birth in Troyes, France, to her transatlantic journey, her works in Canada, and her death, at peace among her followers and loved ones.

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Even if you’re not interested in Marguerite Bourgeoy, there are other reasons to visit the museum. Not only can you see the crypt underneath the church, but a ticket also allows you up into the tower, from where there’s an outstanding view over the Old Port of Montreal. Also included in the ticket price is an audio guide, which brings certain details of the church to vivid life.

Location on our Map
Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours – Website

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April 26, 2016 at 1:55 pm Comments (0)

The Notre-Dame Basilica

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When it opened in 1830, Montreal’s Notre-Dame was the largest church in North America, and it would remain so for fifty years. Today, this French Gothic Revival basilica is one of the top attractions in the city.

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In 1640, during the earliest days of the French colony, the Sulpician Order built the first church of Notre-Dame across from the Place d’Armes. But after a couple hundred years, there were far too many worshipers for the humble church. To reflect its growing power and influence, Montreal required a much grander place of worship.

So the decision was made to tear down the old Notre-Dame, and build something new. James O’Donnell was the architect in charge of the project. This Irish-American protestant was a curious choice for a cathedral in French-speaking Montreal, but it turned out to be an inspired one. Apparently, you don’t need to be Catholic to build catholic churches. Hoping to be buried in his finest architectural creation, O’Donnell converted to Catholicism shortly before his death, and is still the only person entombed in the basilica’s crypt.

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With its two Gothic towers and ornate facade, the Notre-Dame strikes a fine figure when viewed from the Place d’Armes, which it faces. But it isn’t until you step inside that its true beauty is revealed. Bathed in blue and gold, with vaulted ceilings, colorful stained glass, intricate pine carvings and a massive altarpiece, there’s not a corner of the Notre-Dame which fails to impress.

The basilica’s stained glass windows provide a unique touch. They don’t depict religious scenes, as would normally be the case for a church, but moments from the founding of Montreal. Instead of Jesus on the crucifix or the assumption of Mary, we see events like the arrival of the French at the Pointe-à-Callière, the construction of the church, and the re-education of the natives.

The windows will pull your attention to the side, the magnificent altarpiece will bring it to the front, and the blue vaulted roof will compel you to look up, but don’t forget to turn around. At the back of the church, you’ll find another highlight: a giant organ dating from 1891 and made of 7000 individual pipes. It’s recently been tuned (a process which took weeks), and according to our guide, sounds better than ever before. The organ is played during Sunday service.

Behind the altar, we found the Sacré-Cœur Chapel. After an arson attack in 1978, this chapel was completely rebuilt by a team of master carpenters, who used only linden wood. With natural light pouring in from above and illuminating the wooden statues and modern altarpiece, this chapel feels entirely different to the rest of the cathedral; warmer and more rustic. More Canadian, somehow.

Location on our Map
Notre-Dame Basilica – Website

Framed Montreal Photographs

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April 13, 2016 at 3:46 pm Comments (0)
St. Jospeh's Oratory Montreal's largest religious complex, and certainly the largest we've seen in North America, the Oratory of St. Joseph is located in the heights of Mont Royal, and enjoys commanding views over the city. With multiple chapels, an underground church, a museum, and of course the crowning basilica, the Oratory is stunning in scale, impressive even to non-Catholic visitors.
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