Catholicism’s empty corner?

Photo credit: L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal.

by Marcus Roberts

Bonjour tout le monde! I write from Montreal where I am currently on sabbatical. It is an interesting place with a seemingly very secular population living in and around the massive and very visible reminders of its Catholic past.

Being Catholic, one constantly notices images and buildings that comfort and strengthen; if one is not Catholic then these images and buildings must simply fade into the background or provide some local colour, history and perhaps some tourist dollars!

Last year, writing in First Things magazine, George Weigel opined that Quebec is “Catholicism’s empty corner” in the Western Hemisphere: “There is no more religiously arid place between the North Pole and Tierra del Fuego; there may be no more religiously arid place on the planet.”

Whatever the belief of current Montrealers, it is immediately clear to a new visitor that this was once a very Catholic place.

One does not have to go far to stumble across a beautiful church; We live only two minutes from our local Catholic church — a beautiful stone neo-Gothic construction from the 1920s with services held in English to serve the local English borough.

To give an example of typical Sunday service, at Palm Sunday vigil Mass, the congregation was no more than 80 people, quite elderly and nearly completely white.

We didn’t fill more than a fifth of the church once we had filed in, but of course we all spread out throughout the entire church as if we wanted to ensure that no pew was lonely.

Each of the three aisles had a hand sanitising soap dispenser at its foot which reminded me of the avian flu scare of a few years ago. As if this wasn’t enough, all the parishioners made sure that the sign of peace was strictly a non-contact sport. Just to be on the safe side.

Children’s church seems to be a sporadic and unpredictable affair unfortunately, but the priest does his best to make our children feel very welcome.

One difference from New Zealand we have noticed is  that, apart from scheduled daily Mass times and the two times for Confession a week, our local church seems to be locked. There is no ability to go and pray in the church during the day aside from arranging with the priest beforehand. I wonder if it is a fear of vandalism coupled with a lack of demand?

There are imposing and beautiful stone structures which serve their congregations all around the city to lift your mind beyond the everyday mundane to higher things.

On my way to work I pass Dawson College, a large public college that occupies a former Mother House of the Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame. The building is topped by a dome with a very large statue of Our Lady and the Christ child which looks down on a busy city intersection and all of the commuters on their way to and from the city centre.

Closer to the heart of the old city is the Notre-Dame basilica. While the outside is a very impressive example of the neo-Gothic style, the interior is simply stunning. It is decorated in the warmest colours — gold, blue, red, green and is filled with wooden carvings, details and statues. One can imagine coming to Mass here 100 years ago and not only escaping the cold outside, but being instructed on the faith through the stories depicted on the walls, in the windows and in the statutes around the interior.

The chapel of Notre Dame de Bonseceurs nearby, built in 1771 over the remains of the earlier chapel, more than matches the beauty of the basilica and houses the remains of St Marguerite Bourgeoys as well as art rescued from the French Revolution and brought to “New France”.

Finally (of the notable churches I have so far encountered) there is Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. This is the largest church in Canada (and the 27th largest in the world).

The building is extremely large and grand, but also grey and severe. The main basilica is simply massive, and, although not as big as St Peter’s in Rome, it feels bigger. This is, I think, due to the lack of ornamentation and the brutalist (faintly Soviet) style in which it is decorated. There is certainly not a hint of the baroque here!

Standing over the north of the city, the oratory is not only a visual religious icon visible for miles but it is also busy with the nitty-gritty of saving souls: it holds nine hours of Confessions a day (11 hours on Sundays) and 36 public Masses a week.

As we live only 25 minutes’ walk away, we really have no excuse for not being shriven, although it does sit atop a steep hill!

Marcus Roberts is a father of two pre-school boys and he lives in Auckland. He blogs on demographic issues at

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NZ Catholic Staff

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  1. Donna Varrica says

    We would love it if you dropped in to Dawson College. We’d be happy to show you many of the religious artefacts that remain in our building that had been ‘secularized’ in many instances not too successfully. The library, the former chapel, retains its magnificence in this respect.

    Donna Varrica, Communications Office, Dawson College

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