My Pilgrimage to Brother André’s Heart

by Carol Grant

Try to imagine yourself as a young child of 7 or 8 attempting to interpret the rites, rituals and iconography of the Catholic Church in the late 1940’s. I attended an English Catholic Primary school in Montreal staffed by lay teachers whose responsibilities included teaching us our daily Catechism lessons and preparing us for our First Confession and Communion Rituals. Every Sunday and Holy Day, I would attend Mass with my family and sit through the seemingly endless ceremony which was celebrated in Latin except for the priest’s Homily which might as well have been in Latin since the content was never relevant to young children. We were surrounded by Catholic icons which included images of the Crucifix portraying Jesus almost naked with a crown of thorns in his scalp, a stab-wound in his side and hanging by nails driven into his hands and feet onto a wooden cross. Statues of various male saints wore pained expressions as arrows pierced their bodies and others representing women with rapturous poses gazing upward to the heavens were mounted on pedestals around the church. Several paintings of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” exhibited Christ with a bare torso in which there was a bright red idealized heart encircled by a ring of thorns usually lit by a red votive candle. Often the ceremonies included priests proceeding solemnly down the central aisle swinging silver containers of burning incense, which smoked as it rose and had a very distinct unpleasant odor.

I recall vividly the terror I felt when at age seven—-the so-called age of reason—- I had to “make” my first Confession. We students knelt side-by-side in the pews waiting until it was our turn to enter alone into the closet-like enclosure where we had been instructed to kneel and wait in the dark until the priest slid open a small wooden window. When it opened, I could barely see the priest and trembled as I began the prayer we had memorized: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” We had been told to relate our transgressions, which could include being disobedient to our parents or teachers, lying, stealing, using bad words or having “impure” thoughts. The latter was the sin that our teacher never explained to us. At seven?

Our First Communion Ceremony was supposed to be a Happy Celebration and we looked forward to wearing our special white Communion dresses, stockings, shoes and veils. Our teachers told us that we were going to be “Little Brides of Christ”, a very perplexing concept. The Church rules required us to fast from Saturday at bedtime until almost the end of the 11am Mass when we would have the Communion wafer put onto our very dry tongues and hear the words “Body of Christ” from the priest… again quite an incomprehensible image. Some of the children felt faint or nauseous because of hunger or dehydration mixed with the pungent odor of the incense and had to be removed by their parents. Fortunately, I didn’t disgrace my family and there are photos in our albums showing me as a smiling miniature “bride.” Older students told us we would receive special gifts from our relatives and friends but we were somewhat disappointed when these turned out to be Rosary beads, small prayer books with the Latin and English translations or bookmarks with pictures of the Virgin Mary or female saints.

Despite our personal difficulties with these ceremonies, the following week our teacher told us that as a reward for behaving well at these Catholic rites of passage we were going to go on a day-trip or a “pilgrimage.” Unlike today’s schoolchildren, we had never been on a field trip so this was a very exciting adventure. In Montreal’s center there is a small mountain called Mount Royal, a large urban park overlooking the city. On its northern slope, an immense Catholic Basilica built in the Beaux Arts style of Paris’ Sacré Coeur, and named St. Joseph’s Oratory, rises above the surrounding neighborhoods. Visitors and parishioners must climb hundreds of stairs to reach the church entrance. In Quebec and beyond, this church or shrine has the reputation as a site where many miraculous cures have occurred and it is a tradition for many of the worshippers or supplicants to go up these stairs on their knees. Many of these people are disabled and drag crutches and canes along with them. I had often observed this spectacle when we had passed the church on a streetcar because the location was close to our neighborhood. Our teacher explained to us that many of these people had been cured of their illnesses because they prayed specifically to a deceased man known as Brother André. She told us that he had originally lived on the mountain as a hermit alone in a cave and later in a small wooden hut that he had built. Stories of his ability to cure the sick and heal the disabled were the catalyst for the construction of the Basilica, which was dedicated to St. Joseph, Brother André’s favorite saint. All of these accounts seemed like fairy tales to me but we were supposed to believe everything our teachers told us so I was both suspicious and intrigued by her stories of miracles occurring less than a mile from my home.

On the appointed day of our adventure, our teachers shepherded about 20 first graders onto a streetcar and upon our arrival in front of the church we too had to climb the many stairs where we could observe closely the people of different ages and abilities praying on each step. Many were clasping rosaries and prayer books as they labored upward. We entered the interior of the massive shrine and were amazed by its opulence and grandeur but especially moved by seeing hundreds of canes, crutches and wheelchairs displayed in a large corner of the church or hanging on the walls…proof to our young impressionable minds that this was truly a miraculous place!

Our teacher had told us that after we toured the Basilica, we would experience the highlight of our pilgrimage, which would be a visit to the actual wooden hut where Brother André had lived and prayed. It was there that we were going to see something VERY special…his HEART! “Yes, there were Valentine cards in the 40’s!” and we certainly thought we knew what a REAL heart looked like…shiny, bright red, symmetrical and signifying love and romance so our excitement was hard to contain. Lined up two by two, we were led from the large edifice to a path that wended its way into the dark woods behind the church. Each of us held the hand of a classmate as our anticipation mounted until we came to the humble wooden house about the size of a small garage with a very narrow door. We had to follow one of the teachers single-file (and let go of our friend’s hand!) into a narrow, dark corridor lit only by a few small flickering votive candles suspended on the walls above us. The hallway was over-heated, dark, stuffy, and had an overpowering stench. Suddenly, the teacher stopped and we were all standing crowded against a soiled and fingerprint smudged glass partition, which had replaced one of the walls of a small room and was set up like a museum diorama. We were told to stop and look closely at the tiny room, which had a low ceiling and an old dusty, frayed gray carpet barely covering the moist brown earth below. In the background of the room, there was a small cot, one small desk, a prie-dieu or prayer-chair and many religious icons on the walls. As instructed, we inched our way slowly along the glass partition. As I reached the middle of the room, my eyes were drawn to a small wooden pedestal that was pressed against the other side of the glass. On it a tall dark red votive candle was pulsating and about 4 inches in front of me, there was an old bottle about the size of a large dill pickle jar filled with a murky, gray-green liquid in which floated an object about the size of my hand. It was not RED at all but was the color of stained dark brown cardboard that was cracked and peeling. It was not shaped like my imaginary Valentine heart but was an irregular BLOB of something indescribable! EWWW! GROSS! are the terms a contemporary seven year old would utter. We had been instructed beforehand to pray silently when we saw this relic of Brother André. However, I am sure that I only prayed to get out of that stifling dank tunnel as soon as I could!

When I did some research for this essay, I learned that the famous heart relic had been stolen a few years ago and was missing for several months. The police discovered it in a nearby Montreal neighborhood and returned it to the Basilica where it is now displayed in a secure and elaborate gold and jewel filled miniature shrine…a far cry from a humble pickle jar!

This essay was inspired by my participation in the IRP study group “Guided Autobiography” superbly coordinated by David Grogan. The assigned topic was entitled “My Quest for Meaning” and it stimulated these childhood memories of my early religious education. I am still on that quest but am no longer haunted by theories of sin, penance, retribution or damnation which weighed so heavily on that innocent child of long ago.