Les eglises de Montreal

City discovery leads us to the bones of it, the architecture. And that often leads us to the bones (and even the heart) of saints, the churches. In a French-inspired culture such as Montreal, there are naturally a lot of Catholic churches, and much to marvel at.

First, the heart part. In the middle years of his busy life, Montreal cleric Brother Andre gazed from his window at College de Notre Dame, across Queen Mary Street to a huge hill on which he dreamed of building a monument to St. Joseph. Patron saint of workers, guardian of the Holy Family: Joseph likely seemed to Brother Andre the perfect spiritual sentinel for this growing city in late 19th century French Canada.

Like many things Brother Andre attempted, it got done.

By 1904, the great domed church of L’Oratoire St. Joseph (St. Joseph’s Oratory), which surely reminded transplanted Parisians of Sacre-Couer de Montmartre, looked out over Montreal’s great island. Hundreds of steps slowed the care-rushed weekday march of the faithful, transforming them into pilgrims at least for Sunday, stepping, stepping above the human fray and up to God.

20120709-091528.jpgThere is even a path for pilgrims who wish to ascend on their knees, perhaps while saying the Rosary.

20120709-172204.jpgNot that such an occasion might always be considered too personally solemn for answering a phone call.


After the establishment by this design of a kind of old-school reverential atmosphere, the interior of the main dome is an intriguing surprise: minimalist, with a distinct lack of ornate detail — but no less grandeur than older, more traditional large churches.


20120709-173030.jpgThe choir screen and organ array seems nearly Art Deco in its aggressive modernity.

20120709-173220.jpgTall wood carvings of the Apostles line the sides of the sanctuary. This is St. Matthew. The rawness of the woodcutters style seems to strip away any pretension and prepare congregants for a frank discussion of their lives with God.

20120709-173439.jpgThe carving of St. Peter has two heads — perhaps to engender thoughts of his transformation from a self-doubting fisherman to the rock (Petrus, Peter, Pierre; they all mean both Peter and rock) upon which the church was built.

I mentioned the heart: I was being literal. When Brother Andre died in 1937 at the age of 91, his heart was removed and preserved as a holy relic, a practice little known in the 20th century. After his death, a million Montrealers passed by the good brother’s coffin in the space of six days. Today they and countless tourist view his heart, presented in clear liquid in an ornate flask and displayed in a gilt case at the Oratory. To modern sensibilities, even throughly Catholic ones, this is both fascinating and creepy.

Brother Andre was declared a saint by Pope John II on the pope’s visit to Montreal, but the locals hew to the tradition of continuing to call him Brother Andre.

And despite the divergence from tradition at St. Joseph’s, there is plenty of old-style — and beautiful — religious architecture to look at in Montreal. Notre Dame Basilique, at Place D’Armes in the Old City, is so much like Notre Dame de Paris in outer form that a photo is not necessary. But the inside — that’s stunning.


The blue light around the altar is by design: it is a shade often associated with the Virgin Mary (Our Lady, or Notre-Dame in French). If you can suspend your visual devouring of the endless details of the altar, there is more to look at out among the congregation.

20120710-160835.jpgThe pulpit, rarely used anymore for homilies, rises above the people on two spiral staircases of finely carved wood, with a landing in between. If the front of the church is Row A and the back is Row Z, the pulpit is at about Row L, along the side. This is just the ceiling of the pulpit.

20120710-161131.jpgThe prophet Ezekiel, carved in wood beside the prophet Jeremiah, seems to gaze with concern upward at the pulpit.

I could have stayed all day and into the night, watching the faithful, watching the light coming in the windows, forever caressing and changing the eternal promise and longings of the grand altar.
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