When I was preaching in St James’ Cathedral in Toronto last Sunday I spoke about the surprises that came the way of travellers and some of the things that had so far surprised me in this journey through Canada. After Sunday in Toronto, Monday was back on the train and a much shorter journey to Montreal. But, though the distances may not have been as great as in the initial journeys, other distance travelled was greater. I knew, of course, that Montreal was in Quebec and so this was going to be French Canadian, but, well, I thought to be honest it would be a bit like Wales is to England, not as though I had stepped out of the train into France!
There is no doubt about it, Montreal is very French. Though the nation as a whole is bilingual, and most of the signs across Canada are in French and English, in Montreal you are very often relying on your knowledge of French to navigate society here (and as my French is appalling that has been a challenge – though of course people will speak English).
But the surprise was not just about that cultural, major cultural difference. Montreal, and I suspect Quebec, is both secular – the Roman Catholic Church lost all its authority in the province in the ‘revolution’ of the 1960’s – but also very holy. Just wandering around the city one encounters church after church and all very large and all very beautiful and the majority appear to be Roman Catholic.
We had come to visit the Bishop and the Dean of Montreal. Their cathedral, Christchurch, stands in the heart of the modern city, a mini-Salisbury, surrounded by tower blocks and standing above, as does everything in this city, an underground city of shopping malls. It’s a lovely Cathedral but with that English restraint that isn’t found in the other churches – especially the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montreal or the Cathedral Marie-Reine-du-Monde. The former is a riot of colour, the latter is modelled on St Peter’s in Rome. There is nothing restrained about the religious heritage here.
There are also references all over the place to local saints, especially Marguerite Bourgeoys who came from France to bring the faith to the indigenous peoples and is celebrated everywhere. There are others as well and in recent years they have been beatified and canonised by Popes eager to show that saints emerge from around the world.
However, the most amazing witness to a local saint is found in the Oratoire Saint Joseph. Behind the city stands Mount Royal, the hill from which the city takes its name. A cross was planted there by the founder of the city in the 16th century and a cross still stands there, illuminated at night, a structure a bit like a holy Eiffel Tower. But around the Mount, on another peak stands this amazing church. Oratory simply doesn’t do justice to the size of the place. It is bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral and as its name would suggest is a real place of prayer. It’s a huge pilgrimage site and has all the facilities that one would expect at Lourdes – the holy supermarket, the rather down-at-heel refectory, the large carparks and outside speakers, massive gathering areas for pilgrims and 283 steps to the church, 99 of which pilgrims can climb on their knees.
This holy place isn’t dedicated to Our Lady as one would expect but to St Joseph. It was the work of one man, originally, Brother Andre. He came to the spot as a young lay brother in the Congregation of the Holy Cross with a devotion to St Joseph. He built a small oratory on the hill and lived there until his death in 1937. But by then people were flocking to the place to pray for healing and in testimony of the miracles received there hung in every place are the walking sticks of those who needed them no more after they had prayed there.
His friends decided that a larger church was needed and the stunning church that we now see is the result. The interior is simply beautiful, the huge set of Stations of the Cross inside the church some of the best I have seen, the quality of the statutes, the fittings, amazing; the place is as clean as it could possibly be and at every turn it is breathtaking.
Below the church is where Brother, now Saint Andre, is buried. The passageways leading to the tomb, now I suppose the shrine, are so full of burning candles that the heat is intense and the sense of prayer and holiness almost overpowering. It was unexpected and a blessing.
There is more to say about Montreal and in fact the whole of Canada and the Anglican Church here. The bishops are meeting, as I write this, in Winnipeg, and talking about the aftermath of their Synod, the Canon on Marriage and where they go from here. I said a prayer for them at the tomb of St Andre of Montreal. I don’t know how many people go to church now in this city but it is a place partly formed by faith, even here there is an air of sanctity.
St Andre’s final words were these – a prayer I prayed here
my gentle mother
and mother of my gentle Saviour,
look upon me kindly
and come to my aid.
And then he simply said
St Joseph …