Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, by Francois Marie Heraud, courtesy Quebec’s National Shrines
“Où est la bibliothèque? ” I said to my French-speaking guide to prove I knew at least one French phrase.
Meaning “where is the library,” the question is one of the only phrases I can remember from French class. I pondered whether I could recall any others while enjoying my red wine and crème brûlée in a French restaurant called Bonaparte. The scene felt like a quintessential Parisian experience, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was not in France but was, in fact, spending my first evening in Montreal, Quebec.
The European vibe continued throughout my tour of the Canadian province of Quebec. History reaching back to the 1600s, a culture embracing the arts and four national shrines rivaling Europe’s grand cathedrals make Quebec an easy way to get a taste of France while still in North America.
Fortunately, I found that I didn’t need to brush up on my college French to enjoy Quebec’s mix of European history and Canadian culture.
From Illiterate Orphan to Saint
It seems unlikely that an illiterate orphan with frail health would inspire millions of pilgrims to travel to a church in Montreal. However, St. André Bessette, known as Brother André, was in no way average.
“He was a humble, interesting person,” said Father Carson, a priest at St. Joseph’s Oratory. “When Brother André died in 1937, he had become so famous that the shrine chartered whole trains of people to come. That says something about how beloved he was by the people.”
Thousands of miraculous healings are credited to Brother André, who founded the oratory in 1904. He also inspired the building of the 1967 basilica perched high atop Mount Royal.
I had to lean back to take in the immensity of the Art Deco oratory church and its cavernous dome, one of the largest church domes in the world. Even more incredible were the thousands of crutches hanging on walls and columns donated by people crediting Brother André with their healing. The simple crutches hanging together make a powerful statement.
I also explored Brother André’s original chapel, an exhibit on his life and the Crypt Church, to which the saint escaped for quiet.
After leaving Montreal, I strolled past 18th-century buildings and learned about the one of the oldest French settlements in North America: Trois-Rivières. I followed my 1920s-costumed guide, Josef, along the garden-lined river walk.
“All of the flirts have their first stroll here along the river walk,” said Joseph. “You can see why. It is a magnificent view.”
I admired the river and the historic buildings while picturing the first settlers trying to make a home there in the early 1600s. Josef discussed what life was like for those hardy fur traders and told me about the town’s early Ursuline community and the 1908 fire that wiped out the downtown.