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.