Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 13, 2006
God's servant's dream came true
Br. Andre journeyed from janitor to creater of a shrine
St. Joseph – March 19
- Photo by Ted Fitzgerald
St. Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal is the world's largest shrine dedicated to St. Joseph.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
If ever there was an example of an inspired dream come true, it's in the form of the great St. Joseph's Oratory on Montreal's famous mountain.
A place of superlatives, one of the trio of important Canadian shrines, its basilica exceeds in height some of the world's great churches.
It is visited by millions each year, is associated with thousands of miraculous cures, and is the world's largest shrine dedicated to Christ's earthly father.
The humble servant
And it exists as the result of the single-minded aspirations of a humble servant of God.
Orphaned at an early age, illiterate and in chronic poor health, Alfred Bessette travelled from job to job until finally being accepted by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He served there for 40 years, mostly as a doorman and janitor at Notre Dame College.
He began to provide an ear to the ill and those with spiritual problems, inviting them to his tiny office and eventually spending up to eight hours a day in counselling.
Brother Andre, as he was now called, obtained permission to build a small chapel on the slopes of Mont Royal across Queen Mary Road from the college, with a room to live in and office to entertain visitors.
He dedicated his facility to the patriarch St. Joseph, a man who worked with his hands and was the model caregiver, a person whose life was devoted to the maintenance and protection of his family.
Brother Andre spent the rest of his life, when time allowed, soliciting funds to create a proper home for his patron.
Now his shrine comprises the enormous basilica which rests on the earlier Crypt Church, a separate Pilgrim's Pavilion, the original chapel and the Way of the Cross.
Arrivals without a car can avoid climbing the long staircase to the Oratory by means of a shuttle bus from the entrance, just three blocks from the Cote-des-Neiges metro station.
Once arrived, pilgrims will find that the Crypt Church level of the complex is the most visited. Masses are celebrated regularly in this 1916 church. It can accommodate 1,000 people and, with the rest of the shrine, was designed by several noted church architects.
On the same level, visitors are directed to Brother Andre's tomb, the Votive Chapel, the museum and the not-to-be-missed view from the rooftop terrace of the Crypt Church.
Most people, unless some special event is scheduled, will find the basilica enormous and mainly empty, so that it's readily explorable after a few private prayers.
Stained glass wonders
Inaugurated in 1955, it has room for 10,000 people seated and standing and everything inside is large-scale, particularly the stained glass windows which depict events associated with St. Joseph's protection.
The patron is remembered throughout the complex, usually portrayed holding the Christ Child.
The main altar statue in the Crypt Church is a Carrera marble creation nine feet tall and in a nearby corridor another (1909) statue is associated with a basin of curative oils.
A wood bas-relief shows Joseph wielding a mallet and chisel surrounded by workmen and his holy family and in the Hall of the Scale Model, he appears again as a model of workers and mainstay of families. Naturally, the saint, hand-sculpted by an associate of Brother Andre, dominates the reredos in the original chapel.
Following Mass, most visitors will eventually descend the concrete steps to the shrine's entrance, perhaps intimidated a little by those pilgrims who still continue the tradition of ascending the adjacent 283 wooden steps on their knees.
For whatever reasons they came, pilgrims and visitors will not soon forget their impressions of the sanctity of this remarkable shrine.