A Comparative Analysis of Three Locations of Ritual Activity at Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal

By Nixon, Laurence | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

A Comparative Analysis of Three Locations of Ritual Activity at Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal


Nixon, Laurence, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


[1] St. Joseph's Oratory, situated on the north side of the west mountain in the heart of Montreal, is an architectural landmark that is visible from outside the city. This pilgrimage centre attracts approximately two million visitors a year at a time when attendance at parish churches in Quebec is in marked decline. From a casual visit, the Oratory may seem to be home to a set of compatible, even if somewhat diverse, liturgical and devotional activities. However my thesis is that: (1) a systematic analysis of the three main locations of ritual activity reveals that the decor and ritual activity in two of the principal locations stand in opposition to each other; (2) this opposition is not merely implicit, but explicitly referred to in the Oratory publications; and (3) that the third location of ritual activity mediates between the two that are in opposition to one another.

[2] The primary sources of data for this study consist of literature published by St. Joseph's Oratory, such as the monthly magazine, the guide book, prayer books, hagiographies of Brother Andre; DVDs (sold in the Oratory shop) on the Oratory itself and on the life of Brother Andre; notes made on observations from over one hundred visits to the Oratory with students, colleagues and alone over the space of five decades; and unobtrusive measures (Webb, Campbell, Schwartz and Sechrest 1966), such as counting the number of statues of various saints in the shop and the number of vigil lamps lit over a given period of time in the votive hall. I have also made use of data from secondary sources such as the examination made by Jean-Marc Charron (1996) of a sample of 100 prayer request forms.

[3] The method of analysis used in this study is one of organizing parallel features of the three principal locations of ritual activity into a number of dimensions in order to facilitate a comparison of the ritual space and process in the three locations (see Figure 1). This analysis is supported by quotations from visitors to the Oratory and from the priests who manage the pilgrimage centre, and by data from secondary sources.

[4] My thesis, that the decoration, activities and texts associated with the principal ritual locations of the Oratory express competing discourses, is consistent with the theoretical perspectives taken in more recent studies of pilgrimage centres. The theoretical perspectives used by researchers of pilgrimage and pilgrimage centres have evolved over the second half of the 20th century. Eade and Sallnow (1991) identify three general approaches. One of these is a functionalist (or correspondence) approach in which a correspondence is shown between some aspect of the pilgrimage and the structure of the society in which the pilgrimage site is located. An example is a study undertaken by Wolf (1958) on the Virgin of Guadalupe. Wolf argues that the "miraculous" image of the Virgin of Guadalupe expresses the view that the Mexican mestizos will attain salvation (meaning that they are as human as their Spanish overlords), and that the image further expresses the messianic hope that one day the Spanish will be driven out of Mexico. Another example is that of Bhardwaj (1973) who placed Hindu pilgrimage centres on a spectrum of local, subregional, regional, supraregional and pan-Hindu and found that the more local a pilgrimage centre was, the fewer the number of Brahmins and the greater the number of unscheduled caste members it attracted. Researchers utilizing this approach see pilgrimage as an expression of (or in some cases, even legitimizing) the social order.

[5] In reaction to the correspondence perspective, Victor and Edith Turner (1978) articulated a model that describes pilgrimage as an experience of communitas and antistructure--pilgrims are outside their usual space-time experience in which they would normally have to meet responsibilities within a hierarchical social order, and instead find themselves in a community of equals and in an atmosphere in which the symbols of the religion exposed at the pilgrimage centre take on a heightened significance. …

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