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Visiting a sacred place in Carmel-by-the-Sea

The Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo is the other name of the grounds more commonly known as the Carmel Mission. After visiting, I felt the long name was fitting as the sprawling land is not only home to the mission church, but a complex that also houses an extensive museum, cemetery and garden. I’ve been to other missions before that, while beautiful, solely consist of the old church. You could spend an entire afternoon here learning about the area’s history.

Okay, so you could do this mainly because of California’s mild weather – I visited on a sunny 60 degree day in February, where tourists strolled the upscale, walkable “downtown” area of Carmel consisting mainly of cute shops, art galleries, wine tasting rooms and bed and breakfasts. Approximately one mile down Junipero Avenue brings you to the Carmel Mission, which will be celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2020. Before you step through the small doorway, a sign reminds me that I’m in California: “This is an unreinforced masonry building. You may not be safe inside or near unreinforced masonry buildings during an earthquake.”

A statue of Junipero Serra looms before me as I step onto the garden grounds. The Carmel Mission took on additional significance last year, as Pope Francis declared Serra, the founder of the mission, a saint. It’s a new chapter for the popular pilgrimage site that was also visited by Pope John Paul II in 1987. Originally located in Monterey, Serra moved the mission to nearby Carmel to be closer to something Californians will still appreciate today…water. It became the headquarters for the California mission system, with Serra himself founding nine missions between 1769 and 1782.

The smell of fresh cut flowers and the sounds of Spanish being spoken surround me as I watch my step due to the uneven floor surfaces of the basilica and museum highlighting the daily life of the people who once lived here. Unfortunately my first visit to this national historic landmark was brief but I’m sure I will entertain thoughts of returning as another Minnesota winter rears its ugly head. 

Montreal's Other Basilica

One of the oldest buildings in Montreal dating from 1679, the interior of La Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal is entirely made of wood but, in perhaps a bit of divine intervention, has never had a fire. Most visitors to this island city surrounded by the St. Lawrence River stop at this iconic landmark modeled after La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. But if you’re willing to venture outside of downtown, there is another Basilica honoring the patron saint of Canada: L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal.

Taller than St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, this church boasts a 10,000 candle votive chapel, a 104 foot long corridor of flickering flames glowing through colored glass and dancing on the walls in every direction. It’s a place of solemn reflection until the silence is pierced by a young girl asking “Can I do it Mama?” as the older woman lit a candle.

Situated on Mount Royal, the top of the Basilica’s 318 foot copper dome is the highest point in Montreal, providing a bird’s eye view of the city and Laurentian mountains in the distance. (And yes, those who could not resist the panoramic view on the terrace were taking selfies.) Strangely enough, even with its height, you don’t see immediately see it when you exit the Côte-des-Neiges metro station. No matter – just walk past the McDonald’s and take a right on Chemin Queen Mary (Queen Mary Road) a couple of blocks down and you will see the fleur de lis of the Quebec flag flying in the courtyard of the place Pope John Paul II visited in 1984.

You’ll need to scoot to either the right or left as you begin climbing the 100 steps since the middle part of the staircase is blocked off with a sign reading “Reserve aux pèlerins qui montent à genoux” (“Reserved for pilgrims ascending on knees”). It is a sacred place for some as the home of Frère Andre (Brother Andre), born Alfred Bessette in 1845, who became known for praying to St. Joseph for those who were ill and often were mysteriously healed when visiting him.

To the left of the Basilica is The Way of the Cross, a sixteen station garden holding more than 85 varieties of 20,000 annuals each year, and to the right is a replica of the original chapel built in 1904, measuring only 15 x 18 feet. As it is a “modern” church built in the Italian Renaissance style (construction began in 1924 and lasted about thirty years), the interior features art deco stained glass windows which depict events in Canadian history that refer to St. Joseph’s protection. One such story took place in the village of Bytown (now Ottawa) as a typhoid epidemic swept through in 1847: when the chaplain placed a statue of St. Joseph in the village church where people gathered, the disease mysteriously disappeared.

A highlight of my visit on a warm Sunday afternoon was the organ concert, a 60 x 44 foot behemoth with nearly 6,000 pipes. As Gregorian music bellows through the church and striking chords bouncing off the granite walls made me jump, the majesty of this sacred place was revealed.

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