Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of Month, 2003
Behold - - a church within a church
A surplus of pilgrims forced this house of God to build a protective shell
The Oratory of Notre-Dame-du-Monte-Ste.-Joseph
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
For many, it's a shock. They enter the front door of the church and are confronted, a few metres away, with another front door complete with ornate fa‡ade. This is the original St. Joseph Church, built on the mountaintop in 1935 and later encased within more substantial walls - a church within a church.
But before visitors enter the church they've already stopped to admire the panoramic view from the terrace fronting the Oratory of Notre-Dame-du-mont-St-Joseph. What a site for a house of God! It's on a summit 555 metres above the sea and the summer resort of Carleton.
At their feet the neat little Gaspesie town reposes toy-like beside its unusual triangular lagoon or barachois, formed by sandbars arranged around the mouth of a little creek. Viewers can readily discern the tiny lighthouse, bird sanctuary and steepled St. Joseph's parish church. And to left and right, and across Cartier's Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick, little towns dot the unending shoreline. On the terrace, information panels describe the history of the bay and town.
But even before admiring the spectacular vistas from Mont St. Joseph, visitors have already had the experience of traversing the six km, second-gear approach road that climbs through a series of intimidating switchbacks to this heavenly aerie.
Inside the church, an enthusiastic guide will explain the d‚cor of the shrine and the history of the site. Carleton was a refuge for people fleeing expulsion from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755. Memorials on the town waterfront commemorate the priest who accompanied the refugees and honour Our Lady of the Assumption, patron of the land of l'Acadie. Her statue also graces the roof of the mountaintop church.
When a statue of St. Joseph with the Christ Child, protector of the family and patron of the Carleton parish, was placed on the summit of Iron (pyrite) Mountain in 1925, the peak was renamed for the saint. Now gilded, the old wooden statue occupies a place of honour just outside the church sanctuary.
Old photos, exhibited on the church walls, illustrate the construction of the inner building. The present, brick outer structure was put up when the old church could no longer accommodate pilgrimage crowds and as a solid, weatherproof shell to preserve the earlier one.
Centrepiece of the church is a 1963 mosaic triptych behind the main altar. The centre panel shows Mary, Queen of the World, sitting on the globe. To her right is the traditional image of Mexico's Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of all the Americas. The third panel is that of Our Lady of the Cape, patron of the great shrine at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, near Trois-Rivieres.
Also notable are unusual modern Stations of the Cross and stained glass windows. Pilgrimages to the shrine are held in August to correspond with Marian feast days.
Since it's not a parish church, maintenance is undertaken by a society formed for that purpose. Support is from individuals, a comprehensive gift shop in the old sacristy behind the new altar, and by parking fees at the mountaintop. Irregular art exhibitions, held in rooms off the nave, also provide income.
Leaving the church, it's impossible to resist a last look at the spectacular view of the great bay and its towns. Then there's the new experience of the second-gear descent through more than half a vertical kilometre of hairpin turns - but with a new vista at every one.
Many will choose to end an inspired day relaxing over Gaspesie mussels or cod tongues beside the barachois in popular Restaurant Le Heron. It's also a fine place to wait to view spectacular sunsets far up the great bay.