An ocean away from the famous and beautiful shrines of the old world, Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal — Brother André’s shrine — draws 3,000,000 pilgrims a year, come to seek heeding for their ills, to attend mass and buy souvenirs. “No Renaissance pope would pronounce Saint Joseph’s beautiful,” writes novelist Brian Mooiw, who visited it with photographer Don Newlands, “but it is a shrine for the humble.”
THE DAY IS SUNDAY, the time is summer, the hour is noon. Five thousand people sit in expectant silence as a grey-haired man in green mass vestments turns from the high altar and approaches a microphone. His crimson slippers and. behind him, draped on a prie-dieu, his crimson silk cloak and biretta, proclaim him no ordinary priest but a prince of the Roman Catholic Church. He is Paul-Emile ('ardiñal Léger of Montreal. A week ago, he knelt in homage in the Sistine Chapel in Rome and kissed the ring of the newly elected Pope Paul VI. He knelt under Michelangelo's glorious ceiling frescoes flanked by the master-
THE CARDINAL AND 5,000 0 PILGRIMS
pieces of Botticelli, Pinturicchio and Perugino in what has been called the most beautiful chapel in Christendom.
Now, back home among his own people, he looks up at a great dome, in size second only to the dome of Saint Peter’s in Rome. But, despite its impressive proportions, no Renaissance pope or modern museum curator would pronounce Saint Joseph’s Oratory beautiful. Its walls of grey Canadian granite are adorned by unmemorablc frescos and sculptures, the w'ork of obscure French and Italian craftsmen. The cardinal stands on bare concrete. His congregation sits on aluminum folding chairs. Beneath the basilica w'hcre the cardinal preaches, double rows of escalators shuttle pilgrims through a hodgepodge itinerary of gimcrack exhibits and unlovely waiting rooms.
Massive, yet somehow tawdry, a place of prayer, yet in some eyes vulgar. Saint Joseph’s Oratory dominates the city of Montreal on the eastern slope of Mount Royal. Its makeshift quality is partly due to the fact that it has not been completed and no one knows if it ever will be. Yet, if its appointments seem garish, its pilgrimage manners sometimes crude, it must be remembered that this is in accordance with the tastes and living standards of most of the three million pilgrims and visitors who annually visit the shrine. For Saint Joseph's Oratory was not planned by a cultivated prince of the church, but by Brother André, a near-illiterate lay brother, hall porter at the Holy Cross Congregation’s boys’ school in Montreal. Begun as a small chapel in 1904, the shrine grew' into a basilica and, following Brother André’s death in. 1937 at the age of ninety-one, has become as much a shrine to this humble lay brother as to the carpenter saint he wished to honor.
In fact, most of the $10,500,000 already raised for its construction has come from the dollars and dimes of poor Catholic admirers of Brother André from all over Canada and the
U. S. TTie cardinal, beginning bis sermon, knows this. In carefully chosen, homespun phrases he tells this huge congregation of his participation in the recent papal election. The church, he emphasizes, is one family, one faith.
As the cardinal speaks, a living proof of his words is being enacted in the large crypt church, directly below the basilica. Tall and stately as a Watusi chieftain, Father Denis
Olivier, a Ffoly Cross priest from Haiti, holds a white communion wafer between black fingers and turns to face a thousand pilgrims. Communicants press towards the altar rail — first fifty, then eighty, then a hundred. Unaided, he cannot possibly serve them all. No word is spoken, no signal given, but with that eerie efficiency which characterizes operations at the shrine, two young Americans, seminarians from the Holy Cross university at
Notre Dame. Ind.. materialize from behind the altar, bearing chalices filled with communion wafers. They are members of the same order as the priests who run the shrine and have been assigned by their superiors to a summer's dutv in Montreal. Within five minutes communion is given and Father Olivier resumes his mass. He intones in Latin and, in Latin, led by one of the shrine’s volunteer laymen, his FrenchCanadian congregation responds.
Missouri. Alberta, Ontario, New York, California a kaleidoscope of licence plates turns endlessly in the parking lots. Private police, employed by the shrine, smoothly shuffle traffic. sorting out the Greyhound bus (Rochester. N.Y.), two small pilgrim buses which the shrine operates to bring pedestrians up the hill, and a red-and-white convertible driven by a crippled teenager from Trois Rivières, Que. The police wear white slickers and highly
polished brown riding boots. The shrine has a statt ot over three hundred lay employees during the summer.
Rain threatens. Standard bearers of Les Cercles Lacordaire look worriedly at the sky. Following the cardinal's mass and lunch, four thousand members of this Quebec temperance organization will march in an open-air procession through the Garden of the Resurrection.
In the small general office, command post of
AFTER MASS, A VISIT TO THE WAX MUSEUM
pilgrimage activity. Father George Laliberté writes swiftly on a form in triplicate. “For a high mass, which is sung.” he tells a pilgrim, “the contribution is five dollars. For a low mass, one dollar. For what intention do you wish the mass said?” The pilgrim, an elderly Quebec farmer in dingy blue serge and burnished black boots, replies in a voice indistinct with emotion: "For my son, who is very sick."1
Nearby, Father Roland Leduc explains that masses begin at 5.30 a.m. and that confessions are heard all day, except at lunch and dinnertime. This, to the thirty-five priests on the staff, means that most of them average at least twenty hours a week in the darkness of the confession box.
Outside the crypt chapel a loudspeaker crackles: “We ask all pilgrims to register at the information bureau near the restaurant.” The rain starts in earnest.
A new congregation is filing into the crypt chapel. It includes some fifty men, women and children in Slovene national dress. “Why did the man throw the clock out the window?” whispers a ten-year-old Slovene. “I know. Because he wanted to make time fly,” his sister whispers back. The children fall silent as Bishop Lawrence Whelan of Montreal ascends the altar. This mass will honor the Slav saints Methodius and Cyril. The church, as the cardinal has said, is one family, one faith.
It is now 12.30 p.m. More than eight thousand pilgrims move around in the million square feet of terrain occupied by the oratory
on the rocky slope above Queen Mary Road. They attend mass; they light candles in the hushed stillness of the votive chapel where ten thousand votive lights burn constantly, their red glass containers casting a bloody hue over hundreds of crutches, braces and plaster casts left there by pilgrims who have claimed that Saint Joseph helped relieve their physical sufferings. Pilgrims fill the two large, cafeteriastyle restaurants run by the shrine, which feed an average of five thousand visitors each Sunday in summer. They throng the two souvenir shops which are crammed with rosaries, statuettes, crucifixes, medals, bibles, booklets, color slides, postcards and calendars, all laid
out efficiently in the manner of a five-and-tencent store. They pay admission to an exhibit of paper cutouts, photographs and wax tableaux, honoring Saint Joseph, and to a larger, more impressive exhibit, honoring Brother André.
They file past Brother André’s tomb in the crypt and pause to sign petitions to Rome for his canonization as a saint. His case has been studied for twenty years by Vatican authorities. It is still under study; the mills of God grind slowly. But, to the faithful who flock to the shrine, the hall porter is already a saint. They stare in awe at life-size museum rooms depicting his humble office at the shrine, the hospital room in which he died; at showcases filled with his memorabilia, including his clothes. They visit the little chapel he built back in 1904 and stare at the pauper's room above this chapel in which he spent most of his seventy years as a Holy Cross lay brother. The crown jewel of this exhibit is his heart, preserved in an alcohol compound, exhibited to the public in a richly chased glass casket.
It is 1.20 p.m. The cardinal — his doctors have advised him to cut down on his heavy public duties — slips wearily into his black Cadillac for the drive downtown to his palace. A fifty - seven - bell carillon peals across the grounds. A private policeman snaps to attention as the Cadillac passes under the great statue of Saint Joseph at the entrance gates. ¡te Ad Joseph (Go to Joseph) says the legend on the statue’s plinth and, as though in answer, three new pilgrimage buses, each containing forty to sixty U. S. visitors, pass under the statue and climb the steep roadways of the shrine. The loudspeaker crackles: “All pilgrims from Lac St. Jean assemble at once at the information office.”
Six Negro girls from East Orange, N.J., stare up at the huge dome of the basilica. The youngest reads from a fiftcen-cent guidebook published by the shrine. “See the cross on top? That’s five hundred feet up from the street there. It’s bigger’n Saint Paul’s in London or Saint Pat’s in New York.” At the foot of the steps a Chinese Canadian from Vancouver carefully adjusts her lace mantilla. A sign warns: “Shorts, sun dresses and pedal-pushers prohibited on these grounds.” A sign over the centre flight of stairs which ascends to the great church reads: “Reserved for pilgrims ascending on their knees.”
A pilgrim is ascending. She is middle-aged and stout. Because it is raining, she carries a small piece of cardboard which she places on each wet step before moving up on her knees. She is awkward and somehow touching. There are ninety-nine steps and she will say a short prayer on each one. In the Roman Catholic faith a pilgrimage is a penitential journey to a holy place where it has pleased God to show His mercy and power. The stout woman is performing an act of penance in hopes of pleasing God. She prays to Saint Joseph to intercede with God on her behalf. By two o'clock she has reached the twenty-fourth step.
It is the hour for the open-air procession. Heavy-set men in cheap summer suits cautiously unfurl their white and gold temperance banners and look up at the weeping sky. Unknown to them, a decision has been made in the monastery, and with swift efficiency the plan for the huge rally has been transferred indoors. Ten minutes later, four thousand men, women and children kneel in the basilica. The huge German organ sounds the first notes of O Salutaris Hostia. To the right of the altar, a Holy Cross father in a white surplice wave«
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A GREAT MODERN SHRINE
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both arms, conducting the deep rumble of the great crowd’s voice. The standard bearers, grouped now behind the main altar, confidently unfurl their flags. Two laymen appear on the altar, holding long candles. Between them, in golden vestments, is a priest carrying the host in a small pyx.
The stout pilgrim, ascending on her knees, reaches the fiftieth step. Her white summer bonnet is shapeless and bedraggled in the rain.
In the great basilica the priest has
placed the host in a golden monstrance. Hands clutch rosaries. Heads are bowed. The organ sounds the notes of Tantum Ergo. It is now 2.30. The stout pilgrim, rainsoaked, wearily moves her knee onto the sixtieth step.
This is a normal Sunday in summer. The crowds are normal.. There are always services, always celebrations. Wednesdays are for the sick and, on that day, ambulances arrive and cripples throng the aisles. But Sunday is the day of maximum atten-
dance. It has been this way for forty years: it will continue to be this way. In the basilica, a priest shakes a censer filled with perfumed incense. The temperance members stand and four thousand voices sing.
The stout pilgrim, moving more slowly now, reaches the seventieth step. Her harlequin glasses are misted with sweat; she has thrown away her piece of cardboard which got soaking wet. She kneels on the wet step and says a short prayer. Twenty-nine steps to go.
In the three-story secretariat and publicity offices, a Montreal newspaperman, the shrine’s publicity director, is writing a press release for the newspapers on the cardinal’s sermon. Father Paul Leduc is proofreading an article for The Oratory, a monthly magazine which is mailed to 250,000 subscribers all over the world. The Little Singers of Mount Royal, thirtytwo orphan boys who live and study on the grounds and sing at services, are broadcasting for a French radio network. A man is ill in one of the two houses of pilgrimage run by the shrine. A doctor is summoned to his dormitory.
The stout pilgrim, her plastic summer raincoat twisted shapelessly about her waist, has only ten more steps to go. The rain has almost stopped. A pilgrimage of Italian-Americans has come in a bus from Hackensack. It is three o'clock.
The ninety-ninth step
At 3.15 p.m., the stout pilgrim, having reached the ninety-ninth and last step, flexes her paining muscles and wipes her misted harlequin glasses. She walks at once to the crypt chapel and enters the small alcove where Brother André is buried. There, she drops once again to her knees and prays. Her face is red with exertion, her white summer bonnet drips rain rivulets on her neck.
For a great many people the Oratory fulfills no useful purpose or aesthetic need. Its escalators, pseudoart and souvenir shops seem vulgar, its construction a gigantic waste of money. But, to this pilgrim and thousands like her, it is an act of faith. It seems not to matter that her prayers may never be answered: the very act of prayer sustains her in the drabness of her life. Kneeling in head-bent, humble concentration under the guttering red lights of the votive candles, she is an ineluctable reminder of the true reason Saint Joseph’s Oratory has grown so huge, a reminder that it is, in its own garish way, unique in Christendom.
For it is the shrine of the poor, in honor of a saint and conceived by a founder who belonged to the lowest social levels of their respective communities. The Holy Cross Fathers who run it are members of a religious order which imposes on them a strict vow of poverty. They believe that the shrine is beautiful. The stout pilgrim, who also believes in its beauty, is a poor dressmaker from Kingston, Ont. Her life, and the lives of most of the Oratory’s visitors, could be summed up in the three words carved on the tomb of the dead hall porter she now kneels to: Pauper, Servus, Humilis: Poor. Servant, Humble. This shrine is also hers. ★
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