Saint André Bessette

The modest beginnings of Canada's biggest church.

Saint André Bessette

André Bessette was an illiterate son of a Canadian carpenter and a pious devotee of St. Joseph whose lifelong battles with illness prepared him well to intercede on the saint’s behalf as a healer. He was known around Montreal to cure the sick, and visiting crowds of pilgrims overwhelmed the local trolley station where he met them.

So he sought a loan to build a church to St. Joseph, to whom he credited all of his miracles. Nobody would give him the money. Poor André saved it all himself, in 5-cent increments with the proceeds from haircuts he gave to children. His chapel’s construction budget was a mere $200, and built entirely, in 1904, by friends: a rather primitive spruce chapel, just 15 by 18 feet.

Today, after millions in renovations and grand additions, St. Joseph’s Oratory on the slopes of Mount Royale can hold 10,000 worshipers. With a 300-foot tall domed basilica made of copper, it’s Canada’s largest church.

Crutches left behind at St. Joseph's shrine

In March of 2019, in the middle of a Friday morning mass, a young man in a baseball cap ran up to St. Joseph’s altar and stabbed a certain Father Claude Grou in the chest. The priest survived, later telling a TV reporter, “The Oratory will remain a place where people can be welcomed. A place of prayers, and a place of calm, and a place of peace — even if there are some moments like that.”