Skip to Content
Search Icon

Brass Rubbings

Teenage Graffiti Doodles

On Montréal.


Montréal is a city of churches. Almost two hundred (just counting the Catholic ones) anchor the island’s neighborhoods: Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs in Verdun, Saint-Charles in Pointe-Saint-Charles, Saint-Jean-Baptiste in the Plateau, Saint-Édouard in Petite-Patrie, Saint-Denis on Laurier, and on and on. Spires mark the street grid like pins in a map; monumental façades front squares, parks, and metro entrances. The churches and their associated rectories, convents, and schools reflect the patchwork of the island’s ethnic origins. The church of Madonna della Difesa in Little Italy, for instance, features among its frescoes a certain Italian head of state of the 1930s, in military garb and on horseback—a legacy of the propaganda efforts of the fascist regime among the overseas diaspora. The Romanesque church is still surrounded by pizzerias and pasticcerias. Closer to the heart of town, at the green-bedazzled Saint Patrick’s, built for the Irish, Mass is still celebrated in English.

Out of the swirl of the city’s Catholic—and other—identities rises the Oratory of Saint Joseph of Mount Royal. It’s a church at the scale of the island, typifying the city’s paradoxes: an international pilgrimage site prompted by the devotion of a Quebecker de souche. A Catholic place of prayer in the care of a French religious order, nestled on the anglophone side of the bilingual city’s mountain. A grand monument with a working-class ethos: it was constructed in the Depression and dedicated to Joseph the Worker. The dome is an icon in the city skyline, but even its base is so far from street level that people seem more likely to cross continents than neighborhoods to worship in it.

The Oratory’s origins are humble. Its founder, Saint André Bessette, was at pains to receive permission to construct a small shrine to Saint Joseph across from the Collège Notre-Dame, a school for boys run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, where the orphaned, barely literate brother was a porter. The permission, when finally granted in 1896, seemed as much a move to rid the school of pesky queues of ill petitioners as it was a concession to the miracle worker’s piety. Over the next forty-odd years, the site of Brother André’s original wooden chapel saw the construction of a layered, heterogeneous edifice that now draws two million visitors a year—a towering monument to the foster father of Christ and one of his most beloved devotées.

From street level, the visitor who approaches on foot crosses a broad, flat garden before reaching the first embankment of stairs. As the stairs continue, the church’s imposing neoclassical narthex and massive Renaissance revival dome loom larger and closer. By the time one stops at the first parapeted terrace, breathless, for a panoramic view, one has only reached the base of the crypt. It’s easy to go wrong at the last moment and enter—rather than a sanctuary—a gift shop, museum, or café. Constructed as a pilgrimage site from the beginning, the shrine makes many accommodations to modern convenience. These include, jarringly, a set of escalators, which impart to the interior circulation spaces something of the gleaming, organized bustle of a shopping mall, and a hilltop parking lot separating the basilica from Brother André’s original wooden shrine.

Being passed by a tour bus on one’s way up the penitential stairs risks giving the site the muted impact I recall from visiting the James Scott Memorial Fountain in Detroit’s Belle Isle Park. Though that fountain is as large and elaborate as Rome’s Trevi, any sense of the epic is neutralized by the site’s automobile scaling. It’s hard to take cherubs seriously when their wings shadow the distant hood of a blue Dodge minivan or to lose oneself in aqueous contemplation as a black G.M.C. toots around the monument’s vehicularized priority viewing track. One wonders—or in the end forgets to ask—what it was one came out to this wilderness to see.

To visit Brother André’s tomb, one descends into a vault-like votive chapel flickering with ten thousand candles, lit before altars to Saint Joseph’s titles: Guardian of Virgins, Support of Families, Terror of Demons. Between the altars are votive offerings in thanksgiving for healings. When I visited for the first time as a new Catholic, I had only pagan points of reference. At the Asklepion of Epidaurus, an ancient healing site I’d visited in Greece, grateful pilgrims left figurines of knees, noses, and odder parts in supplication or thanks. Here, the wall of hundred-year-old canes and crutches had an oddly oppressive effect, evidence though it was of dozens of individual liberations. The slightly queasy, museum-artifact effect was heightened when I came upon two different signs pointing the way to the Saint’s remains: tomb (one way) and heart (another). While his body lies in a black stone sepulcher, Brother André’s heart is preserved separately and displayed in an elaborate vault (or has been since it briefly went missing in the 1970s).

The basilica’s interior, completed in 1966 by Gérard Notebaert (and collaborators) after a 1937 design by Dom Paul Bellot, is one of those for which, if you do like it, you nonetheless know you must be prepared to give an account for why you like it. Bellot was a French Benedictine, committed to designing in contemporary materials, in dialogue with the tradition. Many of his church interiors feature train-depot-style brickwork in dark, gothic shapes. Notebaert, an alumnus of the Collège Notre-Dame across the street from the Oratory, studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius, the father of the German Bauhaus movement. The space evinces a modernism not allergic to ornament. It looks like something from a Christopher Nolan film—which my naïve sensibilities, when I first visited it, took to be entirely appropriate. It’s an urban monument to the iconic husband and father. There’s a working-class, masculine austerity to the whole thing. The cavernous space is framed by tilting, angular arches of reinforced concrete—Bellot’s forms, realized in Notebaert’s medium. The window glass is stained in unsubtle, primary colors. The bronze grillwork behind the altar reminds me of my brothers’ ornate teenage graffiti doodles (a tribute, not a slight).

At the same time, the church furnishes a rich parcours for devotions. The element I find most beautiful is one that’s easily missed: beneath stained-glass windows and bas-relief Stations of the Cross, the walls are engraved at ascetic intervals with verses from the Psalms about the Righteous Man. The words are inconspicuous, invisible from far away; you have to walk the church’s spare, shadowy perimeter to read them. I was a new Catholic when I moved to Montréal, and I was moved by this allusive, typological riffing around the figure of Saint Joseph. It made the man the subject of prayerful meditation, without shedding the human concreteness that invites our approach.

The space had more to teach. The Art Deco arch behind the altar bears its patron’s titles in mosaic capitals: JOSEPH LE JUSTE, SAINT EPOUX DE LA VIERGE MARIE, GARDIEN DU FILS DE DIEU, PROTECTEUR DE L’EGLISE UNIVERSELLE, MODELE DES TRAVAILLEURS, PATRON DES AGONISANTS. Like the scriptural allusions, these titles, new to me, invited new ways of approach to a figure hitherto only admired and vaguely sympathized with—a mortal drawn unawares into the mystery of the Holy Family. In the votive chapel, I knelt before the altar to Joseph, PROTECTEUR DES VIERGES, moved to place my new life in this foreign city under his patronage.

The basilica stands in a tradition of monumental turn-of-the-century French votive churches. Two in particular come to mind: Notre-Dame-de-Fourvière in Lyon and Paris’s Sacré-Coeur, which were consecrated in 1896 and 1919, respectively. Each, like the Oratory, overlooks its city from a prominent crest. Each, as a basilica, stands outside the ordinary diocesan hierarchy of churches, acting neither as the bishop’s seat (as a cathedral would) nor as the meeting point of a local parish territory. The designs of both—I encourage a Google search—are unusual. And each was offered from private funds with a particular intention, in response to its city’s life and times.

The Fourvière hill above the southern French city of Lyon is a place of ancient Marian devotion. The brocaded church that stands there today was offered in gratitude for the halt of hostile Prussian forces outside the city in 1870. The church adopted intentions invested in the site from centuries before, notably thanksgiving for deliverance from the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages and from cholera earlier in the nineteenth century—both attributed to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Lyon thus entered the twentieth century with a skyline marked by prominent Marian devotion.

Sacré-Coeur, which overlooks Paris from Montmartre, was proposed in 1870 in response to the very fate Lyon was spared. Prominent French Catholics took the surrender of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 as divine judgment on France’s crimes against the Church since the Revolution. The proposed site, while of ancient significance to Christians (the hill being called “martyrs’ mount” for a reason), soon entwined the envisioned church with the charged legacy of the Paris Commune. This short-lived revolutionary government began on the spot in March 1871, and saw one of its ringleaders executed there two months later.

If defeat at the hands of the Prussians prompted soul-searching for France’s Catholics, the takeover of the city by homegrown revolutionaries (who managed to execute Paris’s archbishop before they were suppressed) compounded the impetus to public penance. Prevailing over protests that its construction was a reactionary political gesture aimed at the French Left, the church was completed in 1914 and consecrated after the end of World War I.

Fourvière, Sacré-Coeur, and the Oratory share a monumental scale with Rome’s monument to King Vittorio Emmanuele the Second, although the latter is notable for sitting at street level. “The Wedding Cake,” as it is known, was constructed in the same period amidst related political currents. Built to memorialize the unifier of modern Italy, the monument draws heavily on pre-Christian sacred imagery, which it deploys to stake the claim of a deliverer quite different from Fourvière’s Virgin and Montmartre’s Christ.

The interplay of civic and religious meaning in architecture at the end of the nineteenth century reflects, in Europe, the birth pains of the modern, secular state. In America, the stakes were different, but the spiritual tenor of modernity was being similarly worked out. At the risk of free association, I’ll note that Franco-American architect Emmanuel Masqueray gained an international reputation designing Palaces of Agriculture, Transportation, and the like at World’s Fairs before he designed my native Twin Cities’ (monumental, hilltop) cathedral and basilica. Similar architectural energies were channeled into a civic or a religious expression, according to the client.

If Fourvière and Sacré-Coeur declare French Catholicism’s resistance to revolution and war and the Wedding Cake memorializes the birth of a modern nation-state, Saint Joseph’s Oratory rose as a monument of popular piety just as Quebec’s own Quiet Revolution was taking shape. The Oratory is still, in its peculiar way, a national monument. Its founder typifies the rural francophone Catholicism that traditionally distinguished Quebec from its long time Anglo overlords, and to which the secularized province remains, today, ambivalently attached.

Rather than an invasion by outside forces or a rejection of faith whole-cloth, the Quiet Revolution was in many ways Quebec Catholicism’s internal evolution in response to the conditions of modernity. This complexity is mirrored in the contrast between the Oratory’s traditional exterior and Art Deco interior: rather than rejecting modernity, the Church in Quebec internalized it.

The interior architect Dom Bellot, who died in 1944, wrote in his autobiography, “America needs the contribution of French Canada to escape the materialism in which it is mired. Don’t think you’ll create a durable architectural work simply by using this or that new material. That isn’t enough. A style is the result of a common impulse, a spiritual accord, a religious faith.” For all its oddity, the Oratory educated me into a devotion to the foster father of Christ, patron of the homeland of Saint André Bessette.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?