An Unsuspected Visual Treasure

The Oratory’s archives contain a unique treasure: a collection of 10,000 photographs, taken mainly at the Oratory and dating from 1904 to 1980. Created by the religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross, as part of their duties at the shrine, this collection presents different aspects of the Oratory’s history: the evolution of the site, the life of Brother André, the employees, important visitors, small and large events, etc. These were subdivided into 307 thematic series a few decades ago.

A great deal of classification, research and dating work is still necessary to give these photos their true meaning as archives, to correct classification errors, to redefine more accurately the date or context in which they were taken, etc.

For example, the Oratory has a series of photographs of processions with the statue of Saint Joseph, without any other information about their context, their date, or the people photographed. The rare information that accompanies the photos is sometimes erroneous. A series of 42 photos identified as being taken in 1962, for example, seems to date on 1951, 1953, 1960 and 1962. In addition, there are some classification errors.

In order to solve these problems, last year the Oratory obtained a grant from Bibliothèques et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) to finance a project to describe old photos. 26 series of photos, gathering a total of 844 photographs dating from 1904 to 1971 were selected in order to provide each one with basic information that would be useful, such as a date, the name of the photographer, the places photographed, a description of what is seen, etc.

In this post I present some of my discoveries and my research process.

Frère André avec M. Lavallée

03_38B Brother André with M. Lavallée

This photograph demonstrates that one must sometimes be wary of the captions accompanying photographs.

The original note indicates that the photograph was taken on August 9, 1925, the day of Brother André’s 80th birthday. An analysis of the details in the photo and a thorough knowledge of the history of the Oratory reveal an error in the dating of the photograph.

It shows Brother André and Mr. Lavallée on a staircase in front of the old nave of the Original Chapel. This nave was built in 1908 and demolished in the spring of 1915. The staircase was added around 1910, following the expansion of the chapel. Considering the clothing of the characters, we can conclude that this photo was taken between 1910 and 1914.

Pèlerinage de l’Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française

Pilgrimage of the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française

This photo was found among those of Brother André’s funeral. The first thing that stands out when you look at it is the absence of a Basilica.

At the time of the funeral, the main structure of the Basilica was already built, but without the roofs, turrets and dome. The construction of the Basilica had begun in 1924 with the clearing of the space behind the Crypt church. Here, we see a forest! Other details, the Crypt church seems clearly finished and the Original Chapel, which was in front of the Crypt church until January 1918, is not there.

While analyzing the various details on the photo, I realized that I had already seen a similar photo, but from another angle. It was of the October 10, 1920 pilgrimage of the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française, which brought together 50,000 people.

As luck would have it, I also found the same photo published in the magazine Les Annales de Saint-Joseph, used to talk about this major event. This is a rare thing, because at the time, the magazine contained very few photos. This one was taken as a parade of cadets, with a band, was leaving Collège Notre-Dame to go to the Oratory and a streetcar was unloading pilgrims.

Pèlerinage des employés de la Commission de Transport de Montréal

66_26 Pilgrimage of the employees of the Commission de Transport de Montréal

Pèlerinage des employés de la Commission de Transport de Montréal

66_28 Pilgrimage of the employees of the Commission de Transport de Montréal

These photographs are part of the series of processions with the statue of Saint Joseph. In this series, there are many photos of firemen who carry, as here, a procession stretcher with a statue of Saint Joseph.

The untrained eye can easily believe that this is also the case in the photo on the right (66_28). There is one detail that is not quite right in this picture. The firemen’s uniform of this period is normally composed of two sets of buttons on the front. But here, except on the front left wearer, they all have only one set of buttons. Another detail, a man is carrying a sign that reads “Div. St Denis”.

In researching this, I discovered that a garage for the Commission de Transport de Montréal, the forerunner of the STM, opened in Saint Denis in 1958. Comparing with the other photos, I found that photos 26, 27 and 28 were taken on the same day.

Interestingly, photo 26 shows the parking lot filled with Canadian Car-Brill buses, the same model used by the city at the time. In order to confirm this, I contacted the STM’s archives department. Gabriel Rioux, consultant to the STM’s archives, confirmed that these were indeed employees of the MTA and that they had made a pilgrimage in 1958. Later, while I was looking for information for another photo, I found an article in the magazine L’Oratoire showing photo 26 and confirming the information, with the added bonus of the date, April 13, 1958.

115_72 Les bâtisseurs de la basilique

115_72 The builders of the Basilica

This photo was originally marked 114_01, so it was the first photo in the series dedicated to the construction of the Crypt church before it was transferred to the series dedicated to the construction of the Basilica. At first glance, I realized that something was wrong with the structure behind the workers: it could not be the construction site of the Crypt church. The structure actually looked more like the Basilica.

As I read more about its construction, I noted the fact that they had used a rail system to facilitate the transport of materials. Underneath the workers, there are four rails. Taking note of this, I made a comparison with the photos of the construction of the basilica and realized that they were laying on the current location of the west turret.

In the center of the photo are two men in vests and ties. The one on the left is possibly Ulric Boileau, a contractor who worked on the crypt and basilica. By comparing it with the photo below, 115_08, we can better visualize the location. The latter, being dated August 1, 1927, allows us to deduce the year of the photo of our workers, by estimating that it was possibly taken the same year.

Élévation des murs de la basilique

My thanks go to Father Réal Fréchette, c.s.c., who was of great help in identifying certain people in the photos.