Loose connections to the 70’s-era Montreal mafia, a human heart on prominent display, a massive chamber of candles, and a stellar viewpoint that looks out one of North America’s most charming cities – would you believe me if I said the attraction I’m describing is a Catholic basilica? Saint Joseph’s Oratory, located near the base of Mont-Royal, is one of the quirkiest sights in the city, one I’m pleased I chose to visit instead of sampling yet another one of Montreal’s impeccable crepe offerings.
Trust me, the instinct to do nothing but eat crepes while in Montreal is strong, especially considering I visited in late December when the temperature did not rise above twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit. Oh, how tempting it was to forgo a morning of sightseeing for a few lazy hours spent curled up in a bakery. Alas, I had Kevin and Jen, my younger sister, in tow and the day of our visit happened to be Jen’s twentieth birthday. I promised my sister a human organ, and I had to deliver.
Canada’s largest church and one of the country’s most popular National Historic Sites houses an actual human heart, which is perhaps its biggest claim to fame for visitors of non-Catholic faiths. The heart belongs to Brother Andre (whom Pope Benedict XVI named a saint in 2010), a native Quebecois minister with a penchant for nursing and healing the wounded. At the turn of the twentieth century, Brother Andre commissioned the original chapel of St. Joseph’s, in honor of one his favorite saints, but the small house of worship soon found itself well over capacity. In the 1960’s, the current oratory was completed to accommodate the growing community.
The fact the church openly displays the heart of its founder isn’t even the strangest part. In the mid-1970s, the heart was stolen, only to be returned a year later once a notorious criminal lawyer – famous for his shady connections with Montreal’s mafia underworld – by the name of Frank Shoofey. How Shoofey managed to recover the heart remains unclear; when the heart was stolen, Saint Joseph’s Oratory assumed they would never recover it. In a series of mysterious events, Shoofey received a phone call containing details about how to retrieve Brother Andre’s heart. Soon after, the heart was returned to Saint Joseph’s Oratory, where it remains today – albeit protected by numerous layers of security.
Even if the (alleged) heart of Saint Andre sits behind thick glass and some sort of medieval-looking barbed wire, my visit to Saint Joseph’s Oratory still brought me the closest I’ve ever been to a human heart.
Can I be honest for a moment? I could not see the heart in person, nor can I see it now, as I study my photographs while trying to pen this article. At the church, both Jen and Kevin claimed they saw it, so I suppose y’all will have to their word for it. It’s also entirely possible I’m not seeing this particular muscular organ because, deep down, I truly have never wanted to see a human heart with my own eyes. What can I say? When watching Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve always looked away from the television screen during the .05 seconds per show they devote to depicting actual surgical work. I’m a writer; I find the myth surrounding the heart infinitely more fascinating than the heart itself. Also intriguing? The official website for Saint Joseph’s Oratory makes no mention of the pilfered heart, nor could I find any additional information during my visit last December. Conspiracies abound: did the church pay a criminal off to return the heart? Were they involved in its theft?
Sadly, these details will probably never be known. And even if parts of this story are, in fact, merely legends, one must admit it makes for quite the compelling tale.
The massive Votive Chapel was arguably my favorite part of Saint Joseph’s Oratory. Even though I’m solidly non-religious, I was raised Catholic and have therefore visited countless Catholic churches and chapels. Also, I’ve been to Europe, and I’m almost positive it’s impossible to travel to Europe and not see at least half a dozen churches. Even so, the Votive Chapel at Montreal’s premier oratory is astoundingly large. Those who are not Catholic photograph the impressive sight alongside Catholics who stop to light a candle. Pilgrims and tourists alike flock to this Montreal landmark all throughout the year, regardless of the weather.
Thousands of canes and other walking aides can be seen throughout the oratory, a testament to the church’s reputation as a place for those with physical disabilities to seek rehabilitation. If you recall, Brother Andre had a passion for curing the ill, and to this day, those suffering from a variety of ailments come from all over the world to see if a visit to the oratory will assist their recovery. Millions visit Saint Joseph’s Oratory for this reason every year, and a fair number of these visitors aren’t Catholic or even Christian. Brother Andre, a man known for kindness, empathy, and goodwill, has become a saint whose popularity transgresses theological boundaries.
If possible, try and visit St. Joseph’s Oratory on a clear day. The church features a stunning viewing platform that boasts impeccable views of suburban Montreal. In my opinion, the city almost has a New York flair to it; the buildings are far shorter, obviously, but the maze of concrete and brick reminds travelers, despite any deceptive European vibes, Montreal is a city on North America’s East Coast.
Cold doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I stepped out of the car on our way out to take this photograph. I had bundled up from head to toe, but no coat or scarf could shield me from the brutal late December Canadian weather. In hindsight, this stop was completely worth it; I think the above photograph is my favorite of the entire oratory.
Like many of Montreal’s sights, St. Joseph’s Oratory is accessible to those with disabilities and completely free to enter. Learn more about the church’s colorful history and visiting hours on their official website. Also, I do believe the oratory is extremely kid and family friendly, and it is heated during the winter, making this a wonderful stop for a cold vacation day.