A look at Montreal's spiritual sites, beyond Notre Dame

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The must-see lists of first-time visitors to Montreal almost always include Notre Dame Cathedral, the religious epicenter of the city and one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the world. But other spiritual institutions also deserve the attention of visitors.

These include a towering, domed basilica high atop Mount Royal -- with a pedigree that dates to a modest, wooden chapel erected back in 1904 -- a sailor's chapel, and a modern museum grounded in the trauma of the Holocaust.

St. Joseph's Oratory

St. Joseph's Oratory is a towering, Italian Renaissance-style basilica with an apex 856 feet above sea level. Its mountaintop setting offers panoramic views of Montreal below.

The basilica's origins lie in a tiny chapel founded in 1904 by lay minister Andre Bessette, revered as a miracle worker. Bessette, who died in 1937, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

The basilica's most striking architectural feature is its gigantic copper dome. The interior, rising 195 feet, is the world's third-largest dome, surpassed only by St. Peter's in Rome and the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast.

In summer, the basilica offers recitals by guest performers playing its massive organ, which has 5,811 pipes. The basilica also boasts a 56-bell carillon. Visitors can hear the ensemble played from outside the oratory on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at noon and 2.30 p.m.

The most evocative and memorable aspect of a recent visit to St. Joseph's was the sight of dozens of penitents arduously climbing a set of 99 wooden steps -- on their knees. For the rest of us, the 283-step climb from street level to the basilica is in itself a test of faith.

Also striking is the Votive Chapel, a long hall lined with altars dedicated to the attributes of St. Joseph, including his healing powers and roles as patron saint of the dying and protector of the Catholic Church. The hallway is illuminated at its center by 3,500 votive candles rising up to the outstretched arms of a statute of the saint.

Hundreds of wooden crutches are arrayed like trophies on the wall as testimony to penitents who believed themselves healed as a result of their pilgrimage.

Visitors who aren't squeamish might visit the display depicting Bessette's life; a notable exhibit is a reliquary containing the man's heart. The heart was stolen from the oratory in 1973 and held for ransom but recovered a year later.

St. Joseph's Oratory is easily accessible via Montreal's Metro subway (the Cote-de-Neiges station on the Blue Line) or by taxi. 

Visit www.saint-joseph.org.

The Sailor's Church

Another hallowed Catholic site worth a visit is Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, commonly called the Sailor's Church.

Located in Montreal's Old Port, the chapel, founded by Margaret de Bourgeoys of the Notre Dame congregation of nuns in 1657, is famous for its statue of Our Lady of Good Hope.

A small observation platform in the rear of the church offers an excellent view of the port and the St. Lawrence River. Inside are 19th century frescoes on wooden slats by Edouard Meloche.

A museum and interpretation center dedicated to de Bourgeoys displays artifacts predating French colonization in 1642.

Visit www.tourisme-montreal.org.

Montreal Holocaust Museum

It's estimated that up to 8,000 survivors of the Nazi Holocaust live in the Montreal area, making this unique group of survivors the third-largest in the world.

The museum, a two-level, 5,000-square-foot enclave situated just off the main lobby of the Holocaust Memorial Centre on the outskirts of town at 1 Carre-Cummings Square (Metro stop: Cote Ste-Catherine), tells the stories of those who survived and those who didn't.

Through the dramatic presentation of 372 photos, 20 archival films and 418 artifacts from concentration camps and ghettos, the museum puts a local spin on the mid-20th century saga of the Jews of Europe.

The displays were chosen from among the museum's holdings of 6,000 original items donated by Holocaust survivors and their descendants in the Montreal region.

Among the exhibits are concentration camp uniforms; Star of David badges and armbands, which Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule; drawings by Jewish artists depicting the hellish conditions in camps; and ID cards that singled out Jews.

The museum suggests allowing about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. That seems right, for this collection is much smaller and more narrowly focused than Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Admission to the museum (closed Saturdays and on Jewish and Canadian holidays) is $8 for adults, $5 for students. Tours are available by reservation.

Visit www.mhmc.ca.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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