Saint Joseph’s Oratory is a basilica of the Roman Catholic Church in Montreal, Quebec. It is the largest church in Canada, and stands on Westmount Street. The church has been designated as a national shrine. As well as being a major tourist attraction, it attracts many pilgrims. Some of the pilgrims interestingly climb a portion of the 283 steps to the church on their knees in recognition of the suffering of Christ.
History of the Church
The precursor of the oratory was a small church dedicated to St. Joseph; this was constructed in 1904 by André Bessette, a lay brother who was himself canonized in 2010. The church was very popular, and the size of its congregation soon began to outgrow its limited dimensions. As a result, a larger church was built in 1917, with a capacity of a thousand worshipers. Construction of the basilica of the oratory was begun in 1924, but the ambitious nature of the project meant that work did not finish on it until 1967.
The large dome which crowns the building was completed in the late 1930’s by the architect Paul Bellot, himself a Roman Catholic priest. It is the largest dome of its type anywhere in the Americas, and the third-largest in the world. Gilbert Moreau made a number of improvements and changes to the oratory’s interior between 1949 and 1951. He also changed the layout of the basilica’s sacristy and made alterations to the monastery which is adjacent to the church itself.
Decoration and Contents
Brother André attributed the miracles that contributed toward his eventual canonization to St. Joseph. It is to this saint that the basilica is dedicated. Because the majority of the miracles reported were connected with healing, the church started to attract an increasing number of pilgrims. Inside the building is a remarkable display of many hundreds of crutches. These represent the pilgrims who claim that they were healed after coming to the basilica. It was this that led Pope John Paul II to approve the beatification of the brother in 1982, and his successor Pope Benedict XVI, made him a saint.
In the church’s museum, the heart of Brother André is preserved in a reliquary. This was done at his own request, in the hope that it would help to protect the basilica. This, together with the reputed healing powers of the building, has helped to bring the basilica over two million visitors annually. The oratory has also become known for the music of its carillon, which has been released on a number of records. Emilien Allard was employed as the carillon operator for twenty years between the 1950’s and 1970’s. He arranged the music used in one of the most successful albums released by the church.
The hundredth anniversary of the first church of St. Joseph was marked in October 2004 by a mass ringing of bells. At nine o’clock in the morning of the 19th, the majority of the other churches on Montreal Island sounded their bells, and five minutes later those of the basilica rang out as an acknowledgement. Also as part of the centenary celebrations, the oratory received the accolade of being named one of Canada’s National Historic Sites. A commemorative stamp of the structure was also issued by Canada Post.