Oratoire St. Joseph – Montreal, Québec - Atlas Obscura

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Oratoire St. Joseph

City law dictates that this mountaintop cathedral containing the heart of a saint is to remain the tallest building in town. 


One man with a vision—isn’t that where many great works begin?

The man was Brother Andre, and the vision was to build a cathedral atop a mountain to honor his most beloved St. Joseph, to whom he attributed all of his healing powers. Construction of St. Joseph’s Oratory in the Côte-des-Neiges area of Montreal was finally completed in 1967, 30 years after his death. It is visited by over two million people a year who go to admire the Italian Renaissance architecture, to worship, or in search of some sort of healing.

Oratoire St. Joseph is one of the most iconic buildings in the city; so much so that city law restricts any building from being constructed that exceeds its height. The tip of the dome is thus the highest point in Montreal. The Oratory is Canada’s largest church and boasts the third largest dome in the world. It is built on Montreal’s mountain, or “Mont-Royal” from French architects.

Born Alfred Bessette in 1845 of a poor French family in a small town outside of Montreal, Brother Andre made his final vows into the brotherhood at the age of 28 at the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal and began work as an errand and laundry boy at the nearby Notre Dame College. During his time there he routinely visited the sick in their homes and performed healing by rubbing oil over the people’s wounds, soothing aches, and pains.

Eventually, swarms of people were lined up at his door in search of healing, and Brother Andre dedicated all of his medicinal powers to St. Joseph, starting a campaign for a chapel to be made for the saint in 1904. In 1924, construction began on the Oratory. Today, visitors come to pray for healing in all forms and crutches line the walls of the votive chapel—all evidence of the alleged miracles performed by the canonized Brother Andre—left by pilgrims of many different faiths who have entered his church to be cured of their sickness. These were part of his beatification and eventually canonization into sainthood in 2010.

The reliquary in the church’s museum contains Brother Andre’s heart, and his body still lies in a tomb below the main chapel of the Oratory, all by his request.

An authentic way to reach the Oratory’s basilica is to climb 99 of the 283 steps on your knees, while in prayer. This was a popular way to reach the basilica during the time of its opening, and the tradition is still practiced today. Many lucky visitors will be able to spot at least one worshipper doing this on their trip up the Oratory.

There is daily mass with celebrations in French, English, and Spanish.  

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