THIS CANADA

On the gilded path to sainthood

Linda McQuaig April 19 1982
THIS CANADA

On the gilded path to sainthood

Linda McQuaig April 19 1982

On the gilded path to sainthood

THIS CANADA

Linda McQuaig

Perched on a marble column, a pickled human organ looking much like a piece of calf’s liver floats in a formaldehyde solution. It is the heart of Brother André, a Quebec religious figure who founded St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal and is credited with performing hundreds of miracles there. After a turbulent history— the heart was kidnapped and held unsuccessfully for ransom before being returned in 1973—it now rests behind heavy wrought iron bars in the oratory. On a crowded Sunday, visitors strain to get close to it. Those hoping for a miracle cure, or perhaps just a special favor, pray in front of it and stuff cash through the wrought iron bars.

The hope of miracle cures and dreams come true has been luring visitors to the oratory for more than 60 years. And those hopes will receive an added boost next month at a special ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in Rome where the Pope will officially honor Brother André, who died in 1937. After more than 40 years of diligent efforts by oratory officials and devotees, Brother André, a former doorkeeper at a Montreal Catholic boys’ school, will be declared blessed, or beatified—the second of three hurdles in the arduous path leading toward full sainthood. In order

to be beatified, a person must, in the opinion of the church, have an authentic reputation among believers for performing miracles. With this weighty endorsement of Brother André’s powers, the annual turnout at the oratory-estimated at two million in 1981—is guaranteed to mushroom. And along with more believers will inevitably flow more dollars into the shrine’s already overflowing coffers.

Now Montreal’s number 2 tourist attraction (after the old Expo site, Man and His World), the huge, sprawling

structure looks more like a cross between an indoor shopping mall and a midway than it does a church. Inside the main basilica, displays promote a contest for a free trip to Rome to witness the beatification ceremony. For 35 cents, visitors can light a candle and pray for family harmony, job satisfaction or a happy death. For bigger requests—the recovery of a sick friend or the conversion of someone who has gone astray—the candles are larger, as is the price: $2.50. Visitors can pay to weigh themselves, see a religious wax museum or have their photos taken in a booth with a panoramic backdrop of the oratory. Souvenir shops offer the full range of momentos: fluorescent plastic Jesuses, oratory car decals, $35 card-

board blowups of Brother André and, most startling, three-dimensional color photographs portraying Christ on the cross—complete with blood, bruises and a crown of thorns. When the photograph is tilted, Christ’s eyes blink open and shut.

Although the shrine is officially dedicated to St. Joseph, the spotlight is clearly on Brother André. Innumerable artifacts from his life are on display, right down to his towels, his cutlery and his toe rubbers. Key rooms have been reproduced, most dramatically the hospital room where he died, complete with

the original floor boards, walls and bed linen. (A wax dummy of him in his death bed was removed several years ago.) Across the hall from a crowded souvenir stand, a sign invites visitors to see Brother André live on the screen for only 10 cents. In fact, Brother André is largely dead on the screen, since much of the film focuses on his funeral.

Although the appeals to the pocketbook appear endless, oratory priest Bernard Lafrenière insists that officials have no idea how much money is taken in. “We usually don’t add it up,” he says. Since St. Joseph’s is a nonprofit church with no congregation (although mass is performed daily), the proceeds go toward the upkeep and improvement of the oratory. Says Lafrenière, who dresses in a suit and tie: “All that’s obvious is that financially the situation is sound.” One hint of just how sound it may be was an estimate in the oratory’s newsletter, The Friend of Brother André, that St. Joseph’s lost $60,000 in mail donations alone during the 32-day mail strike last summer.

For some, the oratory’s commercialism is a bit jarring. “It’s known as Miracle Mart,” says Richard Pinet, a McGill University graduate student who lives nearby. But Lafrenière disagrees with suggestions that some of the trinkets for sale are less than suitable for a church. “If people don’t get it here, they’ll get it somewhere else. It’s not for us to impose our vision,” says the 44year-old priest who has spent the past 10 years organizing the beatification drive. Certainly, the commercialism doesn’t seem to faze the thousands who come to touch Brother André’s tomb, stare at his heart or fight their way to the cash register. “What attracts me personally,” says 26-year-old Jacques Barrette, who came to the oratory last month while visiting Montreal from St. Eustache, Que., “is the man’s ability to lift up sorrow.” Michel Mercier, also from St. Eustache, says he thinks Brother André’s ordinariness appeals to people. “His life was just like yours and mine.”

In fact, Brother André was more of a failure than most. He succeeded at little except, according to legend, performing miracles. Born in 1845, the eighth of 12 children in a poor family in St. Grégoire, Que., Brother André tried, and failed, at shoemaking, baking, blacksmithing, tinsmithing and working in a textile mill before he wound up as a doorkeeper at Montreal’s College Nôtre Dame. Even there, authorities showed an initial lack of enthusiasm for him, fearing he would end up a burden on the school because of his poor health. They changed their minds, however, and were well rewarded for their generosity for, not long after, Brother André started performing miracles. In one early epi-

sode, he reportedly cured an entire ward of smallpox victims merely by falling on his knees in front of them and praying.

So began the legend that was to bring millions walking, and limping, sometimes on their knees, up 100 steps to the oratory. The legend was only slightly marred by his bad temper (according to his official biography, “Sometimes, with tears flowing down his withered old cheeks, he would confide to a confrère: ‘Alas! I have again made someone cry,’ ”) and charges that he fondled women who visited him. Since Brother André’s death some 135,000 people have claimed that cures or favors were achieved through invoking his name in prayer. Although the oratory doesn’t profess to have proof of all 135,000, it did carefully document three miracles for submission to the special Vatican court that rules on beatifications.

Enormous secrecy surrounds the submissions. The oratory is willing to reveal that in two of the three cases, young women were healed almost instantly of apparently incurable ailments after appealing to Brother André. In the third case, the oratory says a man, identified only as Mr. Audino, prayed at the oratory to be rid of his cancer and was cured after invoking the name of Brother André for two years. Reached at his home in Tuscon, Ariz., Joseph Audino recalls the event somewhat differently. Audino says he didn’t even discover he had cancer until two years after his visit to the oratory. He does, however, believe that his constant praying to Brother André cured his disease after his doctor had given him only 30 days to live. Audino subsequently developed another form of cancer, but he remains a loyal believer in Brother André and, if his health permits, he will be flown to Rome at the oratory’s expense for the May ceremony.

Although miracles are central to the Brother André legend, the oratory is careful not to be seen as pushing miracle cures. It does, however, offer small plastic bottles of “St. Joseph’s oil” for 60 cents. Brother André used to offer the same oil to the sick, recommending they rub it on their ailing limbs. And a prominent plaque at the oratory advises visitors that “numerous cures have been attributed to the use of the oil.” Only after the purchaser actually buys a bottle and opens up the attached leaflet does he discover that it contains only vegetable oil with “no secret strength capable of any magic cures.” The leaflet goes on to say that the oil is simply a reminder of Christ’s healing powers, leaving open the possibility that using it might just do some good. The oil—and much else at the oratory—also reminds us that if people believe there’s a way to make their dreams come true, they’ll keep coming back—in droves.