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The Little Chapel That Grew

For the week of Monday October 16, 2006

A view of the small Chapel in 1905
© L'Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal
On October 19, 1904, Brother André saw his dream become reality with the inauguration of the humble chapel that would give rise to Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. Upon entering the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1870, Alfred Bessette took the name of Brother André and became doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montréal. His remarkable humility, willingness to listen and healing powers soon attracted crowds of pilgrims. His reputation grew to such an extent that the influx of visitors started interfering with the College’s activities. He was then allowed to build a small chapel with the funds he had amassed.

Brother André in 1912, age 67
Brother André in 1912, age 67
© L'Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal
Brother André dedicated the chapel to Saint Joseph, to whom he was especially devoted. It also served as an office where he received pilgrims who wanted to meet him. Over the years, the chapel had to be expanded three times to accommodate the ever-growing crowds of the faithful around Brother André.

Pilgrimages to the chapel started in 1905; even Americans and Europeans were drawn by Brother André’s reputation as a thaumaturge (miracle-worker). At that time, a popular piety movement in Europe and in Canada promoted the construction of large-scale churches in city centres, such as the Basilique du Sacré Coeur of Montmartre in Paris. This movement’s influence in Montréal, along with the crowds of pilgrims flocking to the chapel, prompted the construction of a larger building, which would become Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

The construction of the dome in October 1937
The construction of the dome in October 1937
© L'Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal
In its current form, the Oratory consists of a crypt and a basilica. The crypt was built in 1916-17. The small chapel had to be moved at that time, and again in 1954. Brother André resorted to his many contacts to raise funds for his work and especially for the centrepiece: the Basilica. Construction of the Basilica began in 1924, but was temporarily stopped in 1932 because of the Great Depression. Work resumed in 1937, the year Brother André died at 91. Donations continued pouring in, making it possible to build the massive cement dome, considered one the largest in the world. Brother André never saw the Basilica in its completed form.

Although it was inaugurated in 1955, the Basilica would not be entirely finished until the mid-1960s. Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mont-Royal was designated a National Historic Site in 2004. It is still a pilgrimage centre for thousands of believers, as well as one of Montréal’s major tourist attractions.

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