“Joseph shines among all mankind by the most august dignity, since by divine will, he was the guardian of the Son of God and reputed as his father among men,” Pope Leo XII said. “He set himself to protect with a mighty love and a daily solicitude his spouse and the Divine Infant. … It is, then, natural and worthy that as the blessed Joseph ministered to all the needs of the family at Nazareth and girt it about with his protection, he should now cover with the cloak of his heavenly patronage and defend the Church of Jesus Christ.” Montreal recognizes these virtues of St. Joseph.
There, atop the highest elevation in this Canadian city, sits the largest shrine in the world dedicated to St. Joseph, whose feast day is March 19. Just as remarkable, the Oratory of St. Joseph was built by a simple Congregation of the Holy Cross brother: recently canonized St. André Bessette (Pope Benedict XVI canonized him on Oct. 17, 2010).
Driving into the grounds prompts jaw-dropping awe. The basilica-oratory rises above Mount Royal, which itself is 863 feet high. The name of the location is fitting: It becomes an indirect reminder of St. Joseph’s royal descent from King David.
It’s as if we’re looking up to St. Joseph, just as Brother André did all his life, even before he set out to build this shrine.
Yearly, 2 million people visit the shrine. Blessed Mother Teresa visited. And when Pope John Paul II came in 2004, he conferred a rare Vatican honor, the Golden Rose, on St. Joseph’s Oratory during its centennial — only the second Golden Rose he had bestowed. This rare honor, given less than 10 times during the 20th century, is granted to such shrines as Our Lady of Lourdes in France and Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.
But large numbers are no surprise here. In the 1920s, a million pilgrims came annually to the oratory. When Brother André died in 1937 at age 91, more than a million people attended his funeral.
The basilica has Italian Renaissance lines and an enormous dome, which is the third-largest dome in the world (St. Peter’s in Rome is first).
The long avenue along the beautifully manicured lawns and gardens brings visitors to the 100 stairs that lead to the basilica. Pilgrims coming to seek a cure for some ailment or who want to show their exceptional devotion to St. Joseph will sometimes pray while climbing those 100 stairs on their knees.
Of course, pilgrims can easily drive or ride via bus to the top, where both the grandeur and the devotion grow. There’s so much to see and to meditate on at this magnificent shrine.
On the first level is the Crypt Church, which opened in 1917 before the main basilica was slowly built above it. Small it is not: It holds 1,000 worshippers in a traditional liturgical setting that includes beautiful stained-glass windows, completed in 1919, that illustrate many scenes from the life of St. Joseph.
‘At the Service of St. Joseph’
Brother André spent 40 years serving as the doorkeeper of Notre Dame College across the street — and also spent up to eight hours a day praying for the sick through St. Joseph’s intercession, which makes the story all the more remarkable.
First came two small wooden chapels, the first in 1904. From the time St. André became the college doorkeeper in 1871, he would pray with any sick people who came to the door. As the years rolled on and cures came by the cartload, he became known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal.”
By 1909, his new duty was caretaker of the budding oratory on Mount Royal. He envisioned building a magnificent shrine to St. Joseph, so he began raising money from donations and by giving haircuts to students.
André told everyone to pray confidently and perseveringly in firm faith, receive the sacraments, and be open to God’s will — which he unwaveringly did himself.
He surely had qualities his patron had: giving comfort and hope and sharing a fundamental joy and good humor. Brother André would counsel, “You must not be sad; it is good to laugh a little.”
Through it all, André always insisted he was “nothing … only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.”
But what an instrument he was. On the same floor as the Crypt Church, there is evidence of the physical cures granted through St. Joseph’s intercession: hundreds of the thousands of crutches and other such ex-votos left behind by those cured. The Votive Chapel burns brightly with a sea of 10,000 candles pilgrims light in front of one of the oratory’s many statues of St. Joseph.
St. Joseph’s Oil and
Nearby is the oil of St. Joseph, contained in a large receptacle before a statue of the husband of Mary and earthly father of Jesus. Brother André anointed the ill and infirm with oil he took from a lamp burning near St. Joseph’s statue in the college chapel and gave a medal of St. Joseph to them. He always made it clear that any healing was from St. Joseph.
Today, pilgrims still heed his wise counsel as they bring home St. Joseph’s oil, now taken from in front of the current statue, to use as a sign of their own belief in what Brother André taught. (The shrine distributes, on average, 100,000 bottles annually.)
Not far away is St. André’s tomb. In another room, his heart is on display in a reliquary at the request of Montreal’s archbishop at that time, George Gauthier, who thought it would be a sign of the beloved brother’s abiding spiritual presence at the shrine.
Spiritually speaking, he had a heart as big as the oratory itself, yet he lived very simply in a room in the original wooden chapel. His tiny room is preserved, so visitors can see its simplicity. A window in his room looks directly down to the chapel’s altar and statue of his ever-present St. Joseph.
Unfortunately, St. André never saw the splendid upper basilica fully complete. It took until 1955 to finish, with more additions to follow. The huge upper church, more modern in appearance, holds 2,000 people seated and 10,000 standing.
The oratory’s life-size dioramas of scenes from the life of the Holy Family were done specifically for the oratory in 1955, and among the many other depictions of St. Joseph, eight bas-reliefs specifically honor Joseph in one of his many titles. Among them: Model of Workers, Support of Families, Terror of Demons, Hope of the Sick, Patron of the Dying and Protector of the Church.
In every place and every way, St. André wanted to tell everyone who came here to, as Pope Pius XII phrased it in 1955, “Go to Joseph.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal
3800 Queen Mary Rd.
Planning Your Visit
Every day there are seven Masses in the Crypt Church (one in English), plus two Masses in the upper basilica on Sundays. Confessions are heard several times daily, seven days a week.