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The Emile Berliner Musée des Ondes

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Located in the old RCA factory in Saint-Henri, the Emile Berline Musée des Ondes is a small museum dedicated to the world of sound, and Montreal’s place in the history of the audio and aerospace sectors. Only open a few days each week, this museum doesn’t take long to visit, and allows you an inside look at the swiftly-disappearing industrial past of Montreal.

Emile Berliner Musée des Ondes

Emile Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1851, but he emigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen to avoid fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. An electrical genius, Berliner invented the world’s first radial engine for aircrafts, an industrial-scale loom, as well as an early prototype for a helicopter. But his contributions to audio have left the most lasting impression upon the world.

In 1887, Berliner patented the Gramophone, which used a stylus to produce sound waves by following a horizontally-modulating line on a disc. Thomas Edison might have invented the phonograph, but it was Berliner who first put recordings on a flat disc. After losing the American sales rights to his invention, he moved to Montreal in 1904, and established the Berliner Gramophone Company in the neighborhood of Saint-Henri.

Emile Berliner Musée des Ondes

The old factory has undergone a lot of changes during the past century. Berliner Gramophone eventually would become RCA-Victrola, memorable for its logo of the little dog “Nipper” transfixed by the sound of his master’s voice emanating from a gramophone. Eventually, RCA would be drafted into the space race, and Montreal saw the dawning of its involvement in the aerospace industry.

We learned all about Canada’s involvement in space during our visit to the Musée des Ondes. The museum always has some new temporary exhibit, and the one we happened to see was a concise presentation about RCA’s contributions to space exploration.

During our visit, the Musée des Ondes was in a state of flux, having recently been forced to vacate its long-time exhibition space. Most of its regular pieces were in storage, and the small volunteer team behind the museum were in the process of re-organizing. We asked to see the storage area, and after being led on a bewildering mini-tour through the labyrinthine old factory, entered a room where hundreds of antique TVs, radios, record players and electronics were slowly gathering dust.

Emile Berliner Musée des Ondes

Our unofficial tour of the factory continued into the legendary Victor Studio, which opened in 1942. With its bowed wooden walls providing excellent acoustics, this studio welcomed some famous artists to record, including Quebec’s Les Cowboys Fringant and Jean Leloup, as well as international stars like Sinead O’Connor and Alan Parsons. Sadly, the studio has recently shut its doors, due to the rising costs of rent in gentrifying Saint-Henri, and its future is in doubt.

Keep in mind that we visited the Musée des Ondes during a turbulent period in its history, and some of the rooms we saw, such as the Studio Victor and the storage room, are not officially part of the program. But regardless, the opportunity to see inside a historic factory such as the RCA building is one you should take advantage of. This small, volunteer-run museum deserves all the attention and support it can get. A real hidden gem in Saint-Henri.

Location on our Map
Emile Berliner Musée des Ondes – Website

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June 22, 2016 at 3:00 pm Comments (0)

The Montreal Botanical Garden

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Comprising an area of almost 200 acres next to the Olympic Park, Montreal’s Botanical Garden opened in 1931, and is considered to be among the most important in the world. The garden is separated into over twenty thematic zones along with ten greenhouses, dozens of kilometers of trails, and over 22,000 plant species. In other words, you better get started.

Botanical Garden Montreal

There’s no way you could see everything in the Botanic Garden during a single visit. So perhaps the best course of action is to ask one of the staff what happens to be in bloom. That’s what we did, and the guy at the welcome desk pulled out a map, circled “Lilacs” and “Rhododendrons” and recommended a route that would take us to a few of the park’s other highlights.

We had visited the Botanical Garden’s greenhouses shortly after our arrival in Montreal, to see the annual “Butterflies Go Free” exhibition, so today we were able to concentrate on the outdoor sections. That was useful, because the greenhouses themselves are worth hours of your time.

Botanical Garden Montreal

Starting on the western edge of the park, we walked through three small zones: the Perennials, Economic Plants (such as those that produce dye) and the Garden of Innovations (where new hybrid flowers and the latest gardening trends are showcased). We then arrived at the field of lilacs which, as the employee had promised, were in fragrant bloom. The weather was perfect, and I could have spent all day under the shade of the trees with a book; in fact, a lot of visitors were doing exactly that. It doesn’t make sense for tourists, but for a reasonable price, residents can become “Friends of the Garden,” which gives them free access for a year.

We continued north, through the First Nations Garden (featuring trees of North America and a few totem poles), and with some trouble found the Leslie Hancock Garden. This is a small, shaded plot filled with heather and rhododendrons, which feels as though it’s been purposefully hidden away in the forest.

Botanical Garden Montreal

Heading back towards the greenhouse, we passed through the Shade Garden, where low-light plants like ferns and Quebec trilliums thrive, and moved on to the Japanese Garden. They’ve done a good job replicating the atmosphere and layout of the gardens we had become so fond of while in Tokyo. Montreal’s Japanese Garden is the work of horticulturalist Ken Nakajima, and includes a zen stone garden, a bonsai collection, and even a traditional pavilion where you can participate in a tea ceremony.

Next to the Japanese Garden is the Chinese Garden, which is supposed to be fantastic. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation during our visit (it’s set to reopen in 2017) so we wandered through the Alpine Garden. This zone isn’t as immediately beautiful as the others, but shows off a completely different kind of landscape, with the rocks and flowering shrubs of the Alps.

The Botanic Garden isn’t cheap, and it’s so large that I can only recommend going when you have a lot time to spend there. Keep in mind that your ticket will also get you into the neighboring Insectarium. We loved the garden, and even after spending the whole morning there, I wasn’t nearly ready to leave.

Location on our Map
Montreal Botanical Garden – Website

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June 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm Comments (0)

Montreal’s Biosphère

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Built as the American Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, the Biosphère on Île Sainte-Hélène has become one of the defining landmarks of Montreal. Today, this geodesic dome is home to a museum about the state of our planet’s environment.

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The Biosphère is one of the most recognizable buildings in Montreal, and is at its most impressive when you’re standing inside it. The geometric pattern used to create the dome (a Class 1, Frequency 16 icosahedron, since you asked) is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to become dizzy while staring up and around at the intricate system of interlocked metal bars. This is the work of the famous American architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who helped to popularize geodesic domes in the 1950s.

When it was built for the Expo, the Biosphère had been covered with a plastic shell. But in 1976, the shell caught fire in spectacular fashion. The metal girder remained unscathed, but the sphere was closed to the public for nineteen years, before reopening in 1995 as a museum dedicated to water. In 2007, it was re-branded as the Biosphère.

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The exhibitions inside the Biosphère are what you might expect from an environmental museum, though they’ve done a good job of balancing the doom and gloom with optimism for the future. The best exhibit is a 360° cinema experience that recreates wind, rain and snow, and provides concrete examples of how humans are applying lessons from nature within our newest technology. For example, we’re learning how to make LEDs more efficient by studying fireflies, and designing optimal mass transport systems by looking at the veins of a leaf.

Other exhibits allowed us to re-enact a scientific study into water and air pollution, and take a walk through a tribute to the forests. On the top floor of the museum, there’s a viewpoint which offers a view of Montreal’s skyline through the bars of the dome.

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Montreal Biosphère – Website

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June 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm Comments (0)

Habitat 67

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Perhaps the most iconic piece of architecture in Montreal is Habitat 67, designed by Israeli/Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the city’s World Expo. The brutalist interlocking system of identical concrete living cubes still seems as outlandish and visionary as it must have in 1967.

Habitat 67 is what might happen if you were to give 354 identical blocks to a six-year-old, and ask them to create a building. I’ve chosen the age “six” deliberately. A five-year-old would make a mess of it, while a seven-year-old would come up with something more classically elegant. Habitat 67 is what a six-year-old would design: weird, chaotic, and just possibly stable. (You’d look at it for half-a-second, and say something patronizing like “Wonderful, darling.” But later that night, you’d consider the structure more carefully and wonder if you don’t have a little genius on your hands.)

The 354 blocks which comprise Habitat 67 are indeed identical, although the apartments found within the building are not. There are a wide range of apartment sizes and layouts, because the blocks can be purchased together and then interconnected. Safdie’s intention was to create a model for affordable, low-income housing… but that hasn’t exactly turned out to be the case with Habitat 67. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. This bizarre structure has become a recognized architectural landmark, and the prices of its apartments are astronomical.

Habitat 67 is always visible across the river from the Old Port, and every time my eye falls upon it, I think either, “My god, is that building ugly!” or “God, it’s so cool!” We couldn’t resist getting a closer look. Standing right in front of it, we were able to verify the wealth of the people who call it home… almost every single plain gray-brown concrete block had some fancy work of art displayed in the window. As if to pronounce, “Yes, I might live in a hideous container, but look at the ostentatious art I can afford!”

If you don’t have a car, it’s not easy to reach Habitat 67; it seems close, since it’s just across the channel, but you have to walk or bike a long way before arriving. So as long as you’ve made the effort, make sure to walk around the back of the building. You’ll find a little path along a chain-link fence that eventually leads down to the river. Here, the water hits a small set of rapids, creating an ideal “standing surf” spot. It’s popular among surfers and kayakers, as it allows them to ride an endless wave.

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June 15, 2016 at 10:44 pm Comments (0)

The Parc La Fontaine

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Located in the neighborhood of Plateau Mont-Royal, the Parc La Fontaine is a popular place for picnics, strolls, and laying out in the sun. This is among the city’s largest parks, at 84 acres, and on summer weekends, you’ll find nearly every square inch of it occupied.

Parc Lafontaine Montreal

During the course of a normal year, Montrealers don’t get to enjoy a lot of warm weekends. So when that rare trifecta of Sunny + Summer + Weekend hits, it’s not like they’ll be content to spend the day chilling on the couch and binge-watching television. Nope, they’ll be outside. And a healthy percentage of them will be at the Parc La Fontaine.

Originally named Logan Park, this green space has been a municipal park since 1874, when the city purchased what had previously been farmland. Because of its location in the eastern part of the city, it was mostly popular with Montreal’s French-speaking citizens, so in 1901, it was renamed in honor of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, the first francophone Prime Minister of the Province of Canada.

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Parc La Fontaine is certainly an attractive place. There are twin ponds connected by a waterfall, a cultural center, restaurant, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and a couple monuments, including one of a giant slingshot. But most of the park is just open fields and green spaces, where visitors can spread out their blankets and while away the afternoon hours.

Speaking of “attractive”… while Montreal isn’t necessarily better-looking than other North American cities, it seems to have a weirdly elevated percentage of acrobats, thanks probably to the influence of the Cirque du Soleil. And many of them seem to congregate in this park to practice. I wouldn’t suggest you visit La Fontaine to ogle these ultra-fit athletes… that would be creepy! But if you happen to be walking by… they don’t do any damage to the park’s aesthetic beauty, that’s all I’m saying.

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June 14, 2016 at 10:19 pm Comments (0)

Mont Royal’s Twin Cemeteries

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Mont Royal is a lot larger than we expected. Sure, we figured that the hill which provides the city its name would be big, but we didn’t know this hill would be roughly the same size as the city itself. So it came as a shock to learn that the northern side of Mont Royal is nothing but cemeteries… half the mountain, dedicated to the dead.

Mont Royal Cemeteries

We spent a gray Sunday morning walking around the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and the Cimetière Mont-Royal. Well over a million souls have been laid to rest in the two cemeteries, and with the seemingly endless network of trails, there’s no way you could hope to see all the gravestones. Unless you’re weirdly obsessed with gravestones.

We started in the Roman Catholic cemetery of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, which is by far the larger of the two. In fact, this is the largest cemetery in Canada and third-largest in North America. With tens of thousands of tombstones and nine mausoleums, the Notre-Dames covers an area of over 343 acres and has over 55 kilometers of paved road. It was founded in 1854 in response the city’s booming population, and has remained a mostly Catholic place of rest, although today it will accept anyone of Christian faith.

Mont Royal Cemeteries

Sticking to the main route, we walked past some gorgeous and ostentatious monuments, often adorned with crosses or weeping angels. We saw fields of gravestones dedicated to the heroes of the Crimean War and World War I, and went inside the stunning Pietà Mausoleum, which seems to be mostly occupied by Italian families.

Walking around such opulent tributes to past lives, I realized that I don’t have a plan for when I die. So, should whoever’s in charge of arranging my funeral be reading this, here’s what I want: a marble gravestone featuring a statue of me, which should be slightly larger-than-life and shirtless; feel free to exaggerate the musculature of my physique. I should be consoling a weeping angel, or feeding an orphan or something. Make me look good, you get the idea. (If there’s not enough cash to pay for all this, you can burn me and bury my ashes in a shoebox. I guess it’s all the same.)

Mont Royal Cemeteries

Our tour through the the Mont Royal Cemetery was somewhat shorter, but just as impressive as the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. This cemetery dates from 1850, a few years earlier than its larger neighbor, and has around 200,000 interments. It started as a Protestant place of rest, although it’s now non-denominational. We saw English names, as well as German, Chinese and Greek, among many others.

The most impressive monument we saw here was the crypt of John Molson and his family. The founder of the Molson Brewery, he was one of Montreal’s most important entrepreneurs, and also active in politics and banking.

A visit to the two cemeteries of Mont Royal is the perfect “chilly weekend” type of activity. Walking around all this death, reading all the forgotten names, and reflecting on the fleeting nature of our lives, seems like something best appreciated when the wind is cold and the sky is gloomy.

Locations on our Maps: Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery | Mount Royal Cemetery

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May 29, 2016 at 8:15 pm Comment (1)

The Écomusée du Fier Monde

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Found within the former Généreux public bath hall on Rue Amherst, across from the Marché Saint-Jacques, the Écomusée du Vier Monde shines a light on the working-class community of Montreal’s Centre-Sud. We visited the museum, and then took a walk around the neighborhood to which it’s dedicated.

Ecomusee du fier monde

Not speaking French, I had no idea what “fier monde” might mean. Mentally, I had prepared myself for either the “Museum of Four Moons” or the “Museum of Fear World.” So, I was a little disappointed to learn that “fier monde” means something like “proud people”… not as exciting as Fear World, but we decided to check it out, anyway.

The Industrial Revolution was a turbulent time for Montreal, during which it rocketed past Quebec City and Toronto to become the richest and most influential city in Canada. The factories and the people who worked in them were based mostly in the Centre-Sud section of the city; basically, everything to the east of the Boulevard St. Laurent and south of Rue Sherbrooke.

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As neighborhoods full of factory workers tend to be, this was a low-income area with squalid living conditions. The Écomusée begins its story during the Industrial Revolution, introducing the lives and struggles of the shift-workers and their families. You learn about the attempts to unionize, and other ways the people of the Centre-Sud organized themselves to improve their lot.

Those early efforts at solidarity would pay off following World War II, when Montreal began to de-industrialize. The factories which had provided the people a living wage closed up completely, or moved out to the suburbs. With no ready jobs, the Centre-Sud became an area of severe poverty, as the families who had the means to escape did so. To survive, the remaining community had to band together, providing basic education and services to its least-fortunate members, and fighting for governmental aid.

Today, life has improved tremendously in the Centre-Sud, and it’s become one of Montreal’s most vibrant areas. The factories never returned, but that’s become less important. The Gay Village is part of the former “fauborg” (suburb), as is the post-industrial neighborhood of Sainte-Marie. Artists and young people have been moving in, drawn by the prime location and relatively cheap prices.

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The Écomusée does a good job in describing all this history with a set of exhibits that form a loop around the former pool of the Généreux baths. Built in 1927, this bath hall is itself a part of the Centre-Sud’s history, dating from a time when most residents didn’t have running water of their own, and depended upon such public solutions for their hygienic needs.

The museum is small, and doesn’t take much time to tour. But afterwards, you’ll probably want to spend some time walking around the streets of the Centre-Sud, to see first-hand how it’s matured into the modern day. In many ways, the story of this area is the story of Montreal, and it’s worth stopping in to the Écomusée du Fier Monde to learn about it.

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Écomusée du Vier Monde – Website

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May 27, 2016 at 10:07 pm Comments (2)

The Parc des Rapides

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As the St. Lawrence River winds its way from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, most of its journey is smooth sailing. However, just before it reaches Montreal, the river hits a rough patch. Jürgen and I hiked to the neighborhood of LaSalle to check out the Lachine Rapids.

Parc de Rapides Montreal

We started our day at the Parc Arthur-Therrien, across from the Île des Souers (or, Nuns’ Island), so-named because of the Sisters of Notre-Dame who owned it for 250 years. From this park, it would be a five-kilometer trek south to the Parc des Rapides. There’s a popular bike path running along the the St. Lawrence, but we stayed on a smaller dirt trail closer to the water, and enjoyed the riverside walk.

The path stretches along the base of a tall embankment, behind which Montreal’s buildings were hidden from view, and we found it hard to believe that we were still in the city. The weather was beautiful, and our only companions during the journey were birds, reeds, trees, and the occasional jogger. The five kilometers went by in a flash, and soon enough we could hear the rumbling of the rapids.

Parc de Rapides Montreal

These white water rapids have long been a source of adventure for Montrealers. As far back as the nineteenth century, thrill-seekers would pack onto steamboats to navigate them. Even the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, wasn’t able to resist a ride during his visit to Canada in 1860. While in the park, we saw a few rafts full of modern-day adrenaline junkies trying their luck. These rapids aren’t the world’s most treacherous, but they look like a lot of fun.

Less adventuresome are the hoards of people who visit the Parc des Rapides for birdwatching. This is a sanctuary for migratory birds, most importantly the great blue heron. There were dozens of birders in the park, equipped with cameras and gigantic zoom lenses. While they were watching and identifying new species, Jürgen was watching them, jealously identifying their expensive photography equipment. If they’re “birders”, I guess that makes Jürgen a birderer (a word which, incidentally, seems to be impossible for Germans to pronounce).

The Parc des Rapides isn’t large; it’s about 800 meters in length, on a narrow strip of land which lays between the rapids and a tranquil inlet. You can walk up and down the entire thing in about twenty minutes, and we recommend you do so. The further south you go, the less crowded the park becomes, since not many of the birders bother to carry their heavy camera bags all the way to the park’s end.

Location on our Map

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May 26, 2016 at 8:46 pm Comments (2)

The Views from the Olympic Tower

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Built in 1976 for the Summer Games and attached to the Olympic Stadium, Montreal Tower’s height of 165 meters (541 feet) makes it the tallest inclined tower in the world. We took the funicular up to the top, where there’s an observatory that provides views of the Olympic Park, Mont Royal and downtown Montreal.

Montreal Olympic Tower

With its 45-degree incline, it would be an understatement to call the Montreal Tower “slightly tilted.” For comparison, the Tower of Pisa only leans at five degrees. However, Montreal Tower doesn’t exactly seem in danger of falling over. It’s solid, with a massive underground concrete base that’s the weight of three aircraft carriers.

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The funicular climbs the tower every ten minutes, whisking you to the top for one of the Montreal’s best views. The Olympic Park is in the eastern neighborhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; from here, you can see the entire downtown district in one incredible panorama. And you get a great sense for the true size of Mont Royal — it takes up nearly the same area as the downtown and is the same height than the city’s tallest skyscrapers.

Although you can’t step outside, the observatory has windows in every direction, with views of the St. Lawrence to the south, the industrial neighborhoods to the east, and the Botanic Garden to the north. And of course, right underneath, there’s the Olympic Stadium. Formerly home to the Expos, the stadium is now mostly unoccupied and is known as the “Big O” for the doughnut-shaped hole in its roof. Many Montrealers, however, think of it as the “Big Owe.” Its astronomical construction cost of $260 million was finally paid off in 2006, thirty years after the games themselves.

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May 20, 2016 at 2:39 pm Comments (0)

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

Check for flights to Montreal

St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
St Josophe Oratory Montreal
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May 11, 2016 at 10:53 pm Comment (1)

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