Each year some two million people from all over North America and beyond visit St. Joseph's Oratory. The most devout Catholics climb the 99 steps to its front door on their knees. It is the world's largest and most popular shrine dedicated to the earthly father of Jesus (Canada's patron saint), and it's all the work of a man named Brother André Besette (1845–1937).
By worldly standards Brother André didn't have much going for him, but he had a deep devotion to St. Joseph and an iron will. In 1870 he joined the Holy Cross religious order and was assigned to work as a doorkeeper at the college the order operated just north of Mont-Royal. In 1904 he began building a chapel on the mountainside across the road to honor his favorite saint, and the rest is history. Thanks to reports of miraculous cures attributed to St. Joseph's intercession, donations started to pour in, and Brother André was able to start work replacing his modest shrine with something more substantial. The result,
which wasn't completed until after his death, is one of the most triumphal pieces of church architecture in North America.
The oratory and its gardens dominate Mont-Royal's northwestern slope. Its copper dome—one of the largest in the world—can be seen from miles away. The interior of the main church is equally grand, although it's also quite austere. The best time to visit it is on Sunday for the 11 am solemn mass, when the sanctuary is brightly lit and the sweet voices of Les Petits Chanteurs de Mont-Royal—the city's best boys' choir—fill the nave with music.
The crypt is shabbier than its big brother upstairs but more welcoming. In a long, narrow room behind the crypt, 10,000 votive candles glitter before a dozen carved murals extolling the virtues of St. Joseph; the walls are hung with crutches discarded by those said to have been cured. Just beyond is the simple tomb of Brother André, who was canonized a saint in 2010. His preserved heart is displayed in a glass case in one of several galleries between the crypt and the main church.
High on the mountain, east of the main church, is a garden commemorating the Passion of Christ, with life-size representations of the 14 stations of the cross. On the west side of the church is Brother André's original chapel, with pressed-tin ceilings and plaster saints that is, in many ways, more moving than the church that overshadows it. Note: The oratoire operates a shuttle bus for visitors who aren't up to the steep climb from the main parking lot to the entrance of the crypt church. The main church is several stories above that, but escalators and two elevators ease the ascent.