I was born in Ontario, but moved to Montreal when I was 5 and remained there for over 30 years.
My experiences, as a native, are vast, and I could write a review on every single site, but I chose to review St. Joseph's Oratory because it has always held a special place in my heart. I was 6 or 7 the very first time I visited St. Joseph's... a tiny country girl in a very big city.
St. Joseph's Oratory was built atop Mount Royal in 1904, with the original structure being a simple chapel built in honour of St. Joseph. The founder was Brother Andre, a man who devoted his entire life to the sick and handicapped, and who possessed the miraculous power of healing. He was, because of this ability, called the Miracle-Worker of Mount Royal.
Although Brother Andre's intention had been to create a simple chapel, a spiritual house devoted to St. Joseph, his popularity around the world as a miracle-worker soon made it impossible for him to welcome the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to him. The chapel was simply too small, therefore it was extended in 1908 and again in 1910. The numbers of visitors continued to increase at a rapid rate, and in 1917 a new Crypt Church was built that could seat 1,000 people... of course, this was insufficient, Brother Andre's reputation was growing as he performed one miracle-healing after another, and a further extension was needed. Work began on the basilica in 1924, and ended in 1967 - with space enough to welcome 10,000 pilgrims at a time.
From the outside, the Oratory is a spectacular architectural masterpiece, and its dome is the largest in the world after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome... this is the largest church in Canada.
There are 283 steps leading up to the front entrance from the street below, with 99 steps reserved for pilgrims who wish to climb on their knees. The latter steps are only used by those wishing to honour St. Joseph or Brother Andre - but mostly people will climb these steps, praying as they go, in the hopes that a favour will be granted. I often used to linger at the bottom of the steps and watch the people climbing the centre steps on their knees, most uncaring of the dirt smudging their clothes, or the holes in the knees of their trousers or stockings - others dragging along small pieces of cardboard or towels which they would place upon each step as they climbed.
There is a room within the Oratory, not very big as I remember it, and perhaps a bit more austere and lacking in prettiness in comparison to the rest of the Oratory, but this room was the most extraordinary of them all... it was filled to bursting with walking sticks and crutches nailed to the walls, old wheelchairs stacked in corners, braces hanging from the high ceiling - this room, when you entered it, seemed quieter than any other, the silence enveloped you, the peace and tranquillity... this was the room where those who had been healed would leave their crutches, walking apparatus and wheelchairs. I remember touching a few of these items, the curiosity of a child, and coming across countless braces and crutches that could only have fit very small children. I was awed.. and to this date I still am when I remember that room.
Brother Andre, who died in 1937, was never canonized, however, for those who knew him, and those who have followed his work, he is referred to as Saint Andre. Note that over one million people attended his funeral procession.
As stated earlier, the Oratory is an extraordinary building with its domed centre roof, small, tranquil chapels, alcoves, larger prayer areas able to contain thousands and exquisite stained glass windows... statues, crosses, intricately carved ceilings... the entire building is a work of art, and worth the hundreds of steps you have to climb in order to make it into the building!
However, the most amazing feature is Brother Andre's Gardens of the Way of the Cross. This was a dream that had never been realised upon his death, and was completed, as a tribute to him, 14 years after his death. You cannot leave the Oratory without having walked through this amazing garden with its fountains, statues and niches camouflaging the wooden benches. The garden is extraordinarily beautiful, strangely enough, even in the heart of winter! I have visited the Oratory numerous times in the cold winter months, and have strolled through a frozen, wintry-white garden, and I can tell you now, the tranquillity to be felt within that frozen garden is worth frostbitten toes and fingers. It's hard to explain, but this special garden has always made me feel... happy. It's such a peaceful place, a place intended to bring joy... a gift from up above perhaps?
People still climb the centre steps on their knees, muttering prayers, the small room containing the crutches and walking sticks has remained as it has always been, the gardens are still as beautiful as the day they were created, and Brother Andre's heart, having been stolen in the sixties and then recovered, is still considered the heart of St. Joseph's Oratory.
If you visit Montreal, make a point of visiting the Oratory - as far as I know, it is still free to enter, after all, it is a church, albeit a very big one!