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Escape Artists

A global discourse about great finds close to home and adventures far afield

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.

More than baseball at spring training in Arizona

It was as if a fairy had dusted everyone with happy powder: walking around Sloan Park for the first Cubs spring training game last March in Arizona, fans seemed almost giddy to be watching baseball again on a perfect, 75 degree cloudless afternoon. As I enjoyed sitting outside listening to the crack of the bat, I pondered what to do the next morning before venturing to Tempe Diablo Stadium for an exhibition contest between the Angels and Rockies.

To keep the baseball theme going, I checked out the Wrigley Mansion, built between 1929 and 1931 by William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs, who still play in the stadium that bears his name during the regular season. The stark white structure sits on a 100-foot knoll and boasts 24 rooms and 17 bathrooms. Featuring unobstructed views of downtown Phoenix and Camelback Mountain, it was called “La Colina Solana,” or the sunny hill.

Placed on the national register of historic places in 1989, it was commissioned by Wrigley as a 50th anniversary present to his wife, Ada. While some would say it “blends” elements of Spanish Colonial Revival, California Monterey and Mediterranean architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright had a different view – he called it “an architect’s desecration” because of the incongruent styles. (After hearing this, Wrigley had his main staircase designed in Wright’s signature style so people would think he designed the property.)

I left wondering if Wrigley had any single male relatives around today when I learned about the plethora of special touches he incorporated into the house for his wife: if it seems like it takes you awhile to sit down in your chair, our tour guide said, it’s because Wrigley had them specially designed for his wife who was only 4’11”. Also, their breakfast nook featured a soundproof wall so Ada didn’t have to listen to the servants cleaning while she watched the sun rise over Phoenix.

As fans of baseball history know, the Cubs previously held their spring training on Catalina Island and the mansion features a collection of rare Catalina tile. Visitors also get to peer into the hidden Philippine walnut cabinet in the library that was used to store alcohol during prohibition. The house has a Minnesota connection as well – since 1992, it has been owned by the family of Geordie Hormel (yes, of the meat company in Austin). Legend has it that Hormel, a passionate jazz fan, saw the Steinway player piano Wrigley had commissioned for the house and bought the entire mansion for that one musical instrument, which is today estimated to be worth $15 million.

After my morning history lesson, I stopped for one last panoramic glimpse of the Valley of the Sun before heading off to that day’s spring training game. 

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