© Massimiliano Pieraccini / Alamy Stock Photo

Montreal's enormous basilica (the largest in Canada) has more to offer than just a beautiful vista of the city or a soaring, brutalist nave: it has the heart of a saint.

November 03, 2015

Still in the Halloween spirit? At Montréal's Oratoire Sant-Joseph, Canada's largest church, you can honor both the original and contemporary meanings of the holiday with a visit to Brother André, the Québécois religious brother who was canonized in 2010.

Though Brother André died in 1937, his body—and, separately, his heart—are interred in the enormous Catholic basilica so that visitors can pay their respects. An enormously popular figure during his life, Brother André was credited with the ability to heal the sick, and when he died, roughly one million people visited his open casket for the six days it was on display at the Oratoire. In the votive chapel, where Brother André's body is buried, visitors can see the walls decorated with the canes of those helped by the Québécois saint.

© Robert Anton Iuhas / Alamy Stock Photo

Stored separately, in an area of the basilica called the Great Reliquary, visitors can also see Brother André's heart, kept in a preserving solution in a glass container that looks very much like a jar. The practice of venerating the bodies of saints is a very old one, dating back to the earliest days of Christianity. In the Middles Ages, as more and more European pilgrims sought out these relics, many churches decided—both for reasons of practicality and to encourage economic growth—to share these holy objects when possible, often by dividing the remains. The reliquary containing the heart of Brother André is a part of that tradition.

So sacred (and thus valuable) an object, the heart was stolen and held for ransom in 1973. The Oratoire refused to pay, and after two years an anonymous call placed to a prominent Montréal lawyer revealed the location: in the original container, in a seal box, inside another box, inside a storage locker, in an apartment building. Police never found the thieves.

Though Brother André's heart alone warrants a visit, the basilica's striking and severe modernist architecture, as well as a splendid view of the city from the top of its 283 stairs, make the trip well worth it. Take a peek into the basilica's small museum, accessible from the gift shop, for a midcentury look at another holy man: life-size dioramas that tell the story of Saint Joseph. You might find yourself feeling a little more saintly than when you arrived.

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