The largest church in Canada, Oratoire St. Joseph (the Oratory of St. Joseph) attracts more than two million visitors each year.
Brother André and the Oratory
Brother André, born Alfred Bessette, entered the seminary in Montreal in 1870. A very dedicated religious man, he was first appointed to the position of porter of the city’s Notre-Dame College. Before long, he began doing much more than sweeping floors, tending to the sick and lonely and becoming well-known throughout the Roman Catholic community for his caring attitude.
In 1904, he built a small chapel near the college where he could receive those in need. He implored them to pray to St. Joseph, who would hear their pleas and address their illnesses and sorrow. Before long, Brother André and the pilgrims he attracted outgrew the little chapel, so a larger church – called a crypt – was built in 1917. It seated one thousand.
Soon, the crypt was also too small, so in 1924 the construction of a great basilica commenced. The project wasn’t finished until 1967. Brother André demanded the basilica be named for St. Joseph, to whom he attributes all the miracles he’s performed.
About the Basilica
Oratoire St. Joseph was designed by architects Dalbé Viau and Alphonse Venne and is built in the Italian Renaissance style. The basilica’s copper dome, which is the highest point in Montreal, is the second-largest of its kind in the world, smaller only than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The dome rises 236 meters (856 feet) above sea level!
Visitors must climb more than 280 steps to get to the basilica’s main entrance. However, there is a separate staircase of 99 steps which is set aside for pilgrims who wish to climb on their knees.
The basilica can seat about three thousand people, and holiday services at the basilica often hold that many and more.
One entire wall in St. Joseph’s Oratory is covered with crutches and other items left by those who made the climb to the basilica and were healed. The Roman Catholic Church has long recognized Brother André’s purported miracles, granting him beatification in 1982 in acknowledgement of those who were healed by his touch and prayers. He was declared a saint in 2010 by pope Benedict XVI.
The heart of Brother André sits in a reliquary (a shrine for holy relics) at the basilica’s museum. He requested that it be kept in the basilica so as to provide protection for the building and the people that enter.
The museum is also home to nearly three hundred different crèches collected from more than one hundred countries. The collection is stunning and is especially popular around the Christmas holidays.