Released as part of Pietro Riparbelli’s CATHEDRALS project, this 25 track album constitutes a psychogeographic soundwalk through Montreal’s Oratoire Saint-Joseph.
(Montreal, Quebec)As an Italian-American, I think it goes without saying, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. Like many others, I experienced a definite theological break from the Church in my early teenage years, yet the cultural aspects of Catholicism persist as an intrinsic and perhaps insurmountable aspect of who I am.
In Italy, during and after the events of 1968, the Church became targeted by reformers intent on ostracizing the Church from public life, in particular to extricate it from any formal control over the public school system. The influence of the Church on politics (including support for Mussolini’s Fascist government), its influence in perpetuating inequality and retarding the progress towards increased economic and social justice, the prohibition of divorce, abortion, open schooling, birth control, all made the Church a rightful target of increasingly feminist activism. Yet at the same time, student and worker movements also found powerful allies amongst from within the faith, including from clergy who proved instrumental in the fight for social justice. Their role shouldn’t be forgotten in the events of that fateful year and the decade that followed.
In Quebec, the Church was similarly a target for reformers during the cultural revolution that began in the late 1940s with the publication of the manifesto Le Refus global, penned by Les Automatistes, led by Paul-Émile Borduas, and which reached its peak during La Révolution tranquille (The Quiet Revolution) throughout the ‘60s. The events of the intervening years demonstrate the complex relation Quebec society maintained with the Church. The Asbestos Miners Strike of 1949 was declared illegal by Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, who fervently opposed any position he deemed socialist. Strongly siding with the companies, Duplessis sent squads of police to protect the mines, and his Union Nationale party benefited from a long affiliation with the Catholic Church. Members of the clergy broke ranks to support the strikers, eventually forming a majority in support. This culminated in Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau’s enthusiastic support in favor of the union and the strikers, for which he later resigned. The 1960 publication of the book Les insolences du Frère Untel (the Insolences of Brother So-and-so) was a fierce attack against the Church-controlled public education system. And yet its author, Jean-Paul Desbiens, was himself a Marist Brother. That book had a huge impact in driving the reforms of the mid 1960s, though Brother Desbiens was unsatisfied with the nature and execution of those reforms. By the late 1960s, Quebec had gone from being one of the most fervently Catholic nations to having among the lowest Mass attendance.
The construction of the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal began in 1924 and was completed in 1967, encompassing the period described above. Initiated by Brother André (recently canonized a Saint), whose heart is displayed in the reliquary and who is entombed in the crypt, the Oratoire Saint-Joseph is a minor basilica and the largest church in Canada. The dome of the basilica is the third largest of its kind in the world. Being constructed in the 20th century, the Oratory is somewhat unique in its inclusion of escalators, elevators, humming appliances, and modernist inspired art, design and sculpture. Built on Westmount Summit, one of the peaks of Mont Royal, pilgrims must walk up many dozens of stairs to reach the entrance of the Oratory, or else drive or take a shuttle van to one of the alternate entrances.
I visited the Oratory many times in the five years I lived in Montreal, and came to know the whole complex quite well in my handful of trips spent making recordings for this project. In the end, all of the recordings contained in this album come from one chronological recording made on 22 December 2014. I felt unable to piece together the fragmented recordings I’d made in previous outings, including recordings of Mass on Easter Sunday and of Organ concerts, of walking through the gardens and following the Stations of the Cross. Nonetheless, engaging in these rituals again, as an adult, even if the Mass was held en Francais and even if I am, as it were, a non-believer, helped clarify aspects of my history and remind me of the central role the Church plays in the lives of so many. It also doesn’t escape me that Saint-Joseph is my namesake, something I meditated on carefully in the process of creating this release.