Interested in religious shrines? Let’s focus on three that I first visited when a young teenager, all of them Catholic, each involving a short journey from here in central Connecticut. Two are in Quebec, both huge and widely celebrated, built by the piety and generosity of faithful French Canadians. The other is little-known, located on a small island in northwestern Vermont, close to my childhood home. St. Joseph’s Oratory was a spectacular sight when I first viewed it way back in the ’40s. It rests on the slopes of Mount Royal (Montreal), a beautiful basilica that started out as a small chapel in 1904. Its impressive dome is the third-largest of its kind in the world One particular memory from that initial visit was the stream of pilgrims ascending the long staircase on their knees, one step at a time, rosaries in hand. More and more came as word spread of miraculous healings An unusual man and his personal saga help explain the appeal of the Oratory. Alfred Bessette was born on a farm south of Montreal in 1845, the eighth of 12 children. He was so weak at birth that his parents, fearing that he would not survive, had him baptized the next day. His father was killed in a lumbering accident when Alfred was only 9, and his mother died of tuberculosis three years later. The family then was dispersed. Bessette had little schooling, and at age 18 came to New England where he worked for four years on farms and in mills in such towns as Moosup, Danielson and Putnam, Conn.
Upon his return to Canada, Alfred wished to enter the religious life. He finally was accepted, given the name of Brother Andre, and assigned to serve as a porter at a boarding school sponsored by the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal, located across from where the Oratory stands now. He began to focus on the sick, he prayed for their recovery, cures were reported, and soon he became revered as a miracle worker. He attributed the healings to the intercession of St. Joseph. The mammoth basilica today was the eventual result of such a humble start.
When Brother Andre died in 1937, at the age of 91, a million people filed by his casket, An effort to seek his canonization began immediately, and on Oct. 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI officially declared him a saint.
Another impressive shrine is the renowned Basilica of St. Anne-de-Beaupre, located 20 miles east of Quebec City. Its roots go back to 1658, when a chapel on its current site was built by early French settlers. St. Anne was particularly revered in parts of France as the grandmother of Jesus, and she and St. John the Baptist are the patron saints of Quebec today. A popular legend claims that, following Christ’s ascension, Mary Magdalene went to France to spread the gospel, bringing with her the remains of St. Anne. The shrine lays claim to four relics of St. Anne, including bones from a forearm and a portion of a finger.
Miraculous cures attributed to St. Anne led to a much larger church in 1876, declared a basilica in 1887. Huge pyramids of crutches, canes, bandages and other evidence of healings were piled high on both sides of the main entrance. After this structure was destroyed by fire in 1922, the present church was constructed over many years, and it was finally completed in 1946. The peak period for visitors is around July 26, St. Anne’s feast day. Be aware, however, that Quebec and Canada as a whole have become increasingly secular in recent decades, leading to a decline in the number of religious pilgrims. The third shrine differs significantly from the other two. It is much smaller, in a rural environment, far from crowds.. As early as 1666 the French erected a fort and chapel on the northern tip of Isle La Motte, a small island in Lake Champlain, now the site of a little Vermont village by the same name. The fort was built to protect New France from hostile Iroquois. It is likely that the first Catholic Mass was celebrated there in what is New England today.
St. Anne’s Shrine is located where the original fort and chapel had stood and offers pilgrims a full range of devotional activities, with particular attention to St. Anne’s feast day. Also located on the grounds are a statue and a relic of St. Anne, a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, a small piece of a garment said to have belonged to Mary, and a statue of the explorer Samuel de Champlain, sculpted at Expo ’67 in Montreal. History records that Champlain first landed on Isle La Motte in 1609 when he claimed the area for France.
A sandy beach provides an opportunity for swimming, and a dock is available for those who wish to arrive by boat. The shrine is an ideal spot for a family picnic or quiet meditation along the Way of the Cross. The yearround population of Isle La Motte is about 500, one of the four islands of Grand Isle County.
For those who can’t travel north to any of these shrines, a magnificent one is much nearer. In 2006 Archbishop Henry Mansell designated St. Anne’s Church in Waterbury, the neo-gothic structure so visible from Interstate 84, as a pro-life shrine honoring mothers.
Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email: Ralphlroy@aol.com.