Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is one of the foremost sanctuaries in the world visited by people seeking contemplation and spiritual renewal. It also attracts tourists who wish to see this architectural wonder and enjoy the spectacular view. Western Christianity has a number of such sites but only three in the hearts of a major cities; Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome, the Sacré Coeur in Paris, and Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. Today, visitors climb 283 steps at Saint Joseph's Oratory between street level and the Basilica. A flight of 99 wooden steps is used for prayer and for those pilgrims who wish to climb on their knees. Two million visitors and pilgrims visit the Oratory every year.
Ballet and Blessed Backstage
Innocently, my parents felt that ballet training was enough culture to keep me away from the frightening world of rock 'n roll, American teenagers and big cars that was reaching across the border, even to our snowbound town.
I learned to love classical music during those years and still enjoy watching ballet but the emphasis on ballet training and the costumes I wore made me feel different from my classmates. Nobody seemed to notice the ordinary girl behind the tutu.
St. John the Evangelist Church
During my last year at Two Mountains High School, I decided to leave the idea of becoming a ballerina behind me and go to McGill University to study English. My parents were surprised because they thought I should study theater or, in their more romantic and impractical view of my future, thought I should attend finishing school in Europe. Luckily, I was able to help pay my college tuition by teaching ballet (those who can't do, teach) and dancing with the Canadettes, modeled after the Rockettes. We high-kicked shoulder-to-shoulder each summer on the grandstand of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
In Quebec, high school ended after grade eleven. Placement in college was based on a series of province-wide exams taken by everybody. I did well and was accepted by McGill University.
So it was, at the age of 16, I began the daily trip by computer train between Two Mountains and McGill University in Montréal where a new world waited. As time went on, I found places to sleep with friends when my activities interfered with the train schedule. I began to write for the McGill Daily, the college newspaper printed using hot-lead type, and hung out at the Student Union absorbing new skills, new ideas and a new sense of what I could be.
I stopped going to church but on lonely days I visited the sanctuary of churches open night and day. I sat quietly in the pew until the beauty around me calmed my soul. I was not then aware of how, in later years, memories of the images and the tradition on every street corner in Montreal would bring me strength and perspective.
The heart of the city is St. Joseph's Oratory hugging Mount Royal. In addition a massive huge cross atop the mountain changes colors with the seasons. I still have a medallion from St. Joseph’s that belonged to my grandmother hanging from my rearview mirror.
Historical note: Saint Joseph’s Oratory The Saint Joseph's Oratory today (Photo: Nathalie Dumas)
The idea of the oratory came to Saint Brother André, a simple porter at College Notre-Dame, who wished to create a small shrine to Saint Joseph, the husband of Mary, to whom he was especially devoted. The Basilica has been visited a number of major figures: Pope John Paul II in 1984, Mother Teresa in 1988, the Dalai Lama in 1993, and the relics of Saint Therese of Lemieux in 2001. The Basilica regularly hosts large diocesan assemblies and prayer services for peace.
Saint Brother André, his confrère and carpenter Brother Abundius Piché and some lay friends began erecting the first chapel on the slopes of Mount Royal right across the street from College Notre-Dame in July 1904. The finished chapel was blessed on the 19th of October of that year, and provided the faithful with an oratory dedicated to Saint Joseph.
The exterior of the Basilica is in the style of the Italian Renaissance. Construction began in 1924 based on plans by Montreal architects Dalbé Viau and Alphonse Venne. When Saint Brother André died on January 6, 1937, the dome had not yet been built. That same year, the French Benedictine Monk, Dom Paul Bellot, in collaboration with Montreal architect Lucien Parent, undertook the completion of the Basilica. The dome was poured and covered with copper. The towers and the base of the dome took on distinctive traits. The interior was completed in 1966, based on designs by the Canadian architect Gérard Notebaert.
Historical Note: The Mount Royal Cross
The cross contains 26 tons of steel, including 1,830 pieces joined by 6,000 rivets. It is 31.4 metres tall and its arms span 11 meters. It stands 252 meters above the St. Lawrence River. Following the latest renovation, it is illuminated by 158 elements of 18 LEDs each. The cross is usually illuminated in white; the new LED system permits it to be changed to any color, including the purple traditionally used between the death of the Pope and the election of the new Pope. Before the installation of the fiber-optic system, this was accomplished by changing all the light bulbs. It is now controlled by computer. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal is responsible for informing the city of the death of the Pope. On various occasions, the cross has been turned red for AIDS awareness and blue for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. On March 28, 2009, it was turned off for an hour to mark Earth Hour. Beside the cross, a plaque marks the placement of a time capsule in 1992, during Montreal's 350th birthday celebration. It contains messages and drawings from 12,000 children, depicting their visions for the city in the year 2142, when the capsule is scheduled to be opened.
My mother also enrolled me in a drama group run by an Irish gentleman up the street who claimed to have studied with W.B. Yeats. I remember reciting lines from The Land of Hearts Desire, and the Tennessee Williams one-act play called The Case of the Lost Petunias. We performed in the basement of St. John the Evangelist. To get backstage, without going through the audience, we trooped in full costume and makeup along the back of the sanctuary and down a separate set of stairs. Incense clung to our costumes. I was kissed for the first time by a young garlic-eating Hungarian man during The Case of the Lost Petunias.
Today the Orthodox Church in America French-speaking parish of Saint Benedict Nursia worships in the basement. That seems to me a much better use of the space.
Memorizing the lines of poetry and reading Tennessee Williams were much closer to my heart than any dancing I ever did. Reading remained by escape and writing remained my dream.
The Mount Royal Cross on top of Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec, Canada stands at the northeastern edge of the mountain, overlooking the east end of Montreal. The first Mount Royal Cross the mountain was placed there in 1643 by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the founder of the city, in fulfillment of a vow he made to the Virgin Mary when praying to her to stop a disastrous flood.
An illuminated cross was installed in 1924 by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and is now owned by the city. The current cross stands 103 feet tall. It was converted to fiber-optic light in 1992, allowing the cross to be lit in red, blue or purple. In 2008-9, the cross was deactivated for five months, during which it was repaired and converted to LED lights, with additional work to improve access to the cross and install new park furniture. The cost for all the work was $2 million, funded by the City and by the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Status of Women.
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