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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Forgotten Montreal

St. Joseph's Oratory looms large over Montreal, the dream of little Brother Andre who persevered in his mission to build a shrine to St. Joseph.

It's an inspiring story and you can learn more here:

The Oratory towers over the city, roughly at the corner of Queen Mary Road and Cotes De Neiges, a short walk from the gargantuan Cotes Des Neiges Cemetery, itself the topic of a future feature here.

What few people realize is that there is a quiet oasis of contemplation to be found in the coffee shop across from the Oratory Gift Shop. The Gift Shop is to the right of the main entrance in a separate nondescript building once you walk up/drive up to the the top level of public parking.

When I visited today, it was full of pilgrims and various brothers and sisters from what looked like South American religious orders. They were all marvelling at the vast array of religious items in every conceivable form and price range. I was particularly intrigued by the life sized mannequin of Brother Andre (it wasn't clear if it was for sale or just for display), keeping watch over the various busts and miniatures of himself.

After purchasing various prayer cards, candles and miniature saints, we discovered the coffee shop.

What a fantastic retreat. And hardly anyone there.

The cafeteria style counter offers up a modest menu of pastries, coffee, and snacks. The space itself looks like an old neglected classroom you've stumbled into after school. But what a view! Large windows frame a splendid panorama of Montreal. At one table, what looked like an old retired clergyman; surrounded by text books as he stared intently into a laptop screen; coffee by his side. Behind us, a soprano and her music director pored over sheet music while she hummed the melody. Calm like the forgotten reading room in a college library... here was a perfect retreat to sit down, read, share some thoughts and contemplate.

Sometimes we're so focused on the BIG picture, we forget to notice the little things right there in front of us, so distracted are we by whatever is new and shiny and temporary. The real reward is the simple pleasures of the forgotten city. There is nothing uniquely charming about the Oratory Coffee Shop or any allure to its bland physical structure but these are precisely the beacons that draw people like me here. I can just sit down with my styrofoam cup coffee and not really be distracted or bugged by anybody and actually clear my head of all the interferences to the creative process. I am simultaneously connected and disconnected. Once I walk down the steps, I'll be headlong into one of the busiest streets in Montreal.

But for the time being, with the sun shining through and the soprano lady still singing quietly... this is exactly what I want right now.

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