Faith in French Canada

A weekend winter pilgrimage to Montreal. Jan. 29 issue feature.

Notre Dame Basilica interior
Notre Dame Basilica interior (photo: Justin Bell)

Stepping out of the Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal on a late afternoon in early January, the light and color was just right: Ornate lampposts cast a warm glow on the snowy ground as white angels cast a blue light at the entrance of the church, welcoming visitors.

Father Daniel Hennessey had invited members of the Sacred Heart House, a Catholic men’s household that I live in, to go to Quebec for a pilgrimage.

It didn’t take me long to agree to go. Having not returned home for the holidays, a break from Beantown would be a welcome turn, and the cost was really low — an easy choice.

Our pilgrim band was a group of five: three of us guys, Father Michael Harrington and Father Hennessey, who graciously took on the driving duties in his new vehicle. The two priests work in vocations for the Archdiocese of Boston.

On Friday evening we battled rush-hour traffic to reach the Catholic center at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where the director there, Father Jon Schnobrich, hosted us for our quick stay.

Rising early on Saturday morning, we crossed the northern border for an epic day.

A Saint’s Devotion

A pilgrim’s trip to Montreal certainly should include a visit to Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal (, which the Register has chronicled on this page (such as in “St. André’s Magnificent Monument to St. Joseph”).

Today’s massive shrine — the biggest in the world to the earthly father of Jesus — started with a devotion to Joseph by St. André Bessette, a religious brother of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

The saint known as “God’s doorkeeper” was an orphan by age 12 and often frail in health. The oratory is a testament to God’s blessings on the lowly and the underdog — to those who humbly serve him. The undereducated saint, who appealed to a bishop to stay with the novitiate, eventually attracted much attention to his comforting presence. Healings were attributed to his advice of going to St. Joseph, and crutches of the healed are many at the shrine. When he died in 1937 at the age of 91, a million people paid their respects.

A better part of a day can be spent at the oratory. Visitors can go to confession and Mass, visit his tomb, and even see his heart preserved in a reliquary. I particularly liked the series of devotional stations to St. Joseph in a candle-lit hallway around St. André’s tomb. The husband of Mary is an amazing role model for us men.

Don’t miss the exhibition of André’s life and an original chapel of the saintly brother.

We stayed overnight in the Jean XXIII Pavilion, a comfortable abode that can host about 30 people.

Our Lady’s Churches

We also visited two other massive churches that day, but not before we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Pasta Piacere on the same street as the Basilica of Notre Dame (

There is a $5 admission to the basilica (not for visitors going to Mass or the Blessed Sacrament chapel), but when you see the exquisite interior and realize that the funds go to the church’s conservation and restoration, it is really a small price to pay.

This fee also grants visitors a 20-minute guided tour, which we especially enjoyed. Helen, the presenter, gave an engaging, poignant and sometimes humorous overview of the church.

Major construction was completed in 1829; bell towers, the remarkable interior elements, a world-class organ and stained-glass windows were added in the subsequent century. Striking to me were the altarpiece sculptures that point toward Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice, including Melchizedek, Abraham and Moses. I especially liked the rendering of Mary’s coronation by Jesus. Blue light illumines the altarpiece from behind.

To really take in the history, beauty and lights of the venerable basilica, be sure to attend an evening show called And Then There Was Light. This is a large-scale, multimedia narrative presentation the likes of which I have never seen in a Catholic church.

Retractable screens and canvas eventually give way to a church lit up at night.

That afternoon we also made a short visit to the Cathedral-Basilica of Mary, Queen of the World. The third-largest church in Quebec is based on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome — and even has a scale model of Bernini’s baldachin over the altar.

Saints and other figures instrumental in the history of the Canadian Church are well represented in the paintings and stained glass of these two churches.

Blessed Trip

Our tour guide, Helen, assisted us with a cell-phone conversation that allowed our two priests to concelebrate a Sunday morning Mass at a country parish: On Sunday morning we attended Mass at the parish of St. Matthew in Beloeil, where Blessed Marie Rose Durocher worked between 1831-1843. Father Hennessey is a distant relative of the saint and had looked forward to seeing the interior of the parish, which was another beautiful example of reverent interior design. After an extended Lord’s Day brunch at Café Du Vieux and a walk along the quaint main street, we headed back to our native country.

Throughout our car travels, we prayed as a group — morning and evening prayer, the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. We included intentions for priestly vocations to the Archdiocese of Boston and for the people we met. We also bonded as friends and as brothers in Christ.

After crossing the border back into the U.S., we listened to an NFL playoff game on the radio, a dramatic overtime victory for the Denver Broncos that ended shortly before we arrived back at Father Hennessey’s rectory.

In this age of high-definition television, we enjoyed listening to the announcer, who vividly described the action on the gridiron.

A certain quarterback (see story on page 2) gave thanks to Christ after the game, and we also gave glory to God for a blessed trip.

Justin Bell writes from Boston.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy