November 2018 Print

St. Anne de Beaupré

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

At the foot of the Laurentian Mountains on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, the lofty spires of a basilica that attracts over a million pilgrims and tourists a year soar over the small town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Located about 35 kilometers east of Quebec City, it is the site of the oldest shrine in French-speaking North America. For over three centuries, the devout have come here to pray to “Good St. Anne.” Many feel that its impressive mosaics, stained-glass windows, sculptures and carvings make it the loveliest church in Quebec: a temple of beauty, knowledge and worship.

Along with Lourdes, Fatima, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Assisi and the shrines of the Holy Land, St. Anne de Beaupré is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Christian world. Countless devout pilgrims and captivated sightseers from all over the world have been moved and filled with wonder by the magnificent St. Anne de Beaupré.

The third church, which succeeded those built in 1658 and 1661, was constructed in 1676. For two centuries pilgrims came to express their faith, to pray for help and to thank for favors granted. It was demolished in 1878. In 1879, Redemptorists from Belgium completed the construction work that had begun in 1872. Pope Leo XIII raised the church to the rank of a minor basilica in 1887. The succeeding priests devoted themselves to the task of heightening the church’s profile.

Inspired by French medieval architecture, the details and semi-circular arches are Romanesque, but the proportions and elevations are Gothic. The new basilica opened in 1934 but the spires were not added until 1962. Its total height is 82 meters. The façade is monumental. St. Anne is seen in the portico tympanum. She invokes God with outstretched arms as she welcomes the pilgrims. We then see the pilgrims in the central portal. One can feel the weight of human suffering bearing down on them: illness mourning, poverty. The statue of the Virgin, one of ten statues decorating the front of the building shows Mary holding Jesus, well swaddled to protect him from the elements, who in turn holds a wooden dove. Over the central doorway, the right hand of the pilgrims’ angel is raised to bless visitors. The concentric archivolts of the great arch frame the rose window in the center of the façade. Farther up, a blind arcade links the two towers, both of which have buttresses. The enormous statue of St. Anne was sculpted from a model of the Miraculous Statue placed in the basilica four years earlier. She is not wearing a crown because the Miraculous Statue had not been crowned yet. The statue is made of copper-covered wood, except for the faces that are covered in lead. Preserved from the flames which had raged around it, this treasure was removed from the ruins of the basilica in on March 29, 1922, the saddest day in the shrine’s history, a fire devoured the basilica, monastery and seminary. September 1922, then installed in the top of the new façade in July 1929. Standing at 13 ft, it is one of the largest wooden statues in Quebec. In just three hours, what the devotion of the people had built in three centuries was destroyed. Alone with Mary in her arms in the forefront, St. Anne braves the weather and the years. In the distance is the Island of Orleans, the jewel of the St. Lawrence River. The church has nine bells weighing from 1050 to 11,935 lbs. The three largest ones are in the north bell tower. The tower closest to the river houses the other six, including the famous pilgrims’ bell which escaped the 1922 fire. Every hour the bells ring out the first few notes of famous hymns to St. Anne. Eight angels are found around the corners of the towers.

Inside, the great nave has the three stories typical of Gothic cathedrals: the large arcades, the triforium and the uppermost clerestory windows. The stained-glass depicts saints, including St. Lawrence on the side facing the river of the same name. The triforium arcades are supported by 326 small columns made of diverse types of polychrome marble. The basilica can hold more than 1,500 people. With its marvelous harmony of glass and stone, the basilica’s rose window made up of 37 stained-glass windows, is similar to those of the cathedrals of Chartres and Amiens. The center window shows St. Anne, the Virgin and the Infant Jesus. Around it are 12 worshipping angels and 12 symbols of litanies to the Virgin. The walls of the basilica are made of porous Cordovan stones dotted with fossils. In the nave the pews are adorned by a kind of Noah’s ark with a caribou, a lynx, and hundreds of other animal forms. A different plant and animal is sculpted on the end of each of the 260 oak pews. The pews are also decorated with scallop shells, the pilgrims’ symbol since the Middle Ages. An allegory of envy, one of the seven deadly sins is displayed in the mosaic on the floor of the central aisle. As in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, arcades divide the interior into five naves, one larger nave and two pairs of side aisles. All of these are lit by clerestory windows and covered in mosaics of historical and symbolic significance. Twenty-four confessionals line the outside walls. Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem is one of 88 scenes from the life of Jesus carved on the 22 capitals of the columns. The basilica is truly a gospel in stone. At the transept crossing, the four evangelists are carved on the pillars. On the side aisle pillars the 14 Stations of the Cross were carved in Indiana limestone. The importance and emphasis are on Christ. He must always be in the forefront. The resulting bas-reliefs are very discreet although very expressive, especially Christ’s face. There are some 300 stained-glass figures. Millions of pilgrims have knelt down before the Miraculous Statue in the north transept. It is made out of a single block of oak and polychromed and was carved in 1927. The first Miraculous statue which dated from 1881 was destroyed when the temporary basilica burned down in 1926. St. Anne is holding Mary who is wearing a robe decorated with gold lilies, the lily being the symbol of purity. The monolithic column is made of Italian onyx. The ambulatory around the choir opens unto twelve radiating chapels, each of which honors a different saint. From left to right, the chapels of St. Patrick, St. Joseph and St. Benedict. The mosaic scenes depict Abraham’s sacrifice and the miracle of the manna, and the stained-glass windows feature the apostles Bartholomew, Thomas and Andrew. In the ambulatory again, a long band of Byzantine-style mosaics evokes the mystery of the Eucharist. The central scene illustrates the Last Supper. Judas alone is portrayed without halo. St. Patrick’s Chapel is decorated with clover leaves, a vault’s Celtic Cross and the green marble of the altar and columns call the emerald isle to mind. The tryptic on the altar is made of Peruvian mahogany.

The Chapel of the Immaculate Conception dedicated to St. Anne’s daughter is in the crypt of the basilica. The low vaults are supported by massive pillars. The lighting and the Marian colors, vivid blue, create a serene, pious atmosphere. The choir and side aisle feature The Presentation in the Temple, painted in 1986. It depicts the high priest Zacharias greeting the young Mary who holds a white lily. She is accompanied by her parents Anne and Joachim. The lovely wooden statue of the Virgin is beautifully framed by the pipes of an organ. There are no less than 178 charming mosaics patterns of different forms of plant and animal life on the sides of the pillars in the chapel. A cast of Michelangelo’s Famous Pieta was used as a model for the 1968 reproduction in Carrara marble.

Around the basilica, a Commemorative Chapel was built in 1878 on the foundations of the transept of the church of 1676. Various materials and ornaments as well as the 1788 bell tower were salvaged from the old church and used for the new chapel. The bell tower has a double lantern topped by a weathercock, the cock being a symbol of the triple denial of Peter. Parishioners were buried in the old cemetery adjacent to the chapel from 1670 to the 1930’s. Like Lourdes, St. Anne d’Auray and other pilgrimage sites, St. Anne de Beaupré has a Miraculous Fountain. A spring, which according to tradition has always been there, rushes from the hill into this fountain built in front of the Commemorative Chapel in the 1880’s. Countless sick pilgrims have reported that this phenomenal water had cured them. The statue of St. Anne stands on a very tall column made in granite. The old high altar of the third church was used until 1876. It was exhibited in the Commemorative Chapel from 1878 to 1998. This masterpiece of Québec sculpture is now housed in the St. Anne museum. It was inspired by the altar in the Val-de-Grâce convent in Paris. The altar frontal illustrates the supper at Emmaus with Jesus and two of his disciples.

The church of the Scala Santa was built on the hillside in 1891. Along the path leading up to it is the statue of the Immaculate Conception which formerly stood in front of the old basilica. Pilgrims ascend the Holy Stairs on their knees as Jesus did for his trial before Pilate in the praetorium. The original stairs are preserved in Rome. Paintings feature Holy Land scenes. Two of the statue groupings show St. Veronica wiping Christ’s face, and the Ecce Homo sculpture with Pilate presenting Jesus to the crowd.

St. Anne de Beaupré Stations of the Cross are one of the finest in Québec. The touching face of Christ at the second Station where he is burdened with the Cross is designed by an artist who studied in Nancy. The Stations are life-sized. They were cast in bronze in France and installed between 1913 and 1945.

In 1671, the Hurons became the first Amerindians to take part to a pilgrimage to St. Anne de Beaupré. Others Indian nations soon followed. Sometimes they would set up camp for a few days near the church. Seventy-one Amerindians are buried in the old cemetery: They wanted to be close to the shrine of the saint they referred to as their grandmother. During the French colonial period, pilgrims would arrive in small boats. In 1844, the first steam ship arrived with pilgrims. Others followed, including the Beaupré, built in 1875 at the St. Anne’s wharf. Boat pilgrimages decreased when the railway was built. However, from 1889 to 1977, the “Good St. Anne Train” and the “Little Electric of St. Anne” carried millions of the devout to the shrine. A bus service, introduced in 1959, replaced them. Since French colonial days, a novena has prepared pilgrims for St. Anne’s feast day, on July 26. Doves and balloons are released to mark the special day. After the evening Mass, to the sounds of hymns dedicated to St. Anne and the Virgin, the pilgrims join the traditional torch carrying processions through the grounds of the Basilica and up the hill along the Stations of the Cross.

What I personally found most interesting is the Cyclorama of Jerusalem. It has been a notable attraction since 1895. It is one of the most famous cycloramas in the world along with those of Gettysburg, U.S.A. and Waterloo, Belgium. Inside the building, visitors are encircled by a huge pictorial representation that is 45 ft high and 357 ft around. It has a vague Middle Eastern style. The panorama painting shows the city of Jerusalem, Golgotha, the Mount of Olives, the road to Damascus and their surroundings on the day that Jesus was crucified. After conducting painstaking research, a Parisian artist and his assistants spent four years painting all the thousands of details in this amazing work. Working in Munich, they finished it in 1882. Above the ramparts of the Holy City, Pontius Pilate’s residence, the Temple of Jerusalem, and the palaces of the high priests and of Herod can be seen. Visitors to this cyclorama, the only one in Canada, are astonished by its detail and the incredible illusion of depth.