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Missing heart inspires art

In 1904 a humble Montreal monk named Brother André realized a dream: to build a shrine to St. Joseph. Pilgrims flocked there, seeking not just a place of prayer but the touch of Brother André — a man his followers believed could work miracles. A century later the shrine, St. Joseph's Oratory, was attracting two million visitors every year and in 2010 Brother André was declared a saint. CBC Archives looks at his life and legacy.

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Where is the heart of Brother André? For nearly 40 years it has been preserved and has occupied a place in St. Joseph's Oratory. There, pilgrims could contemplate it and feel closer to Brother André. But one night in March 1973 thieves broke into the locked room where the heart was kept. A few days later they demanded a ransom of $50,000, but the church refused to pay. The story has captured the imagination of Montrealers, particularly its artists.

In the five months since the theft, Brother André's heart has popped up in Quebec magazines, in song and in art. In July 1973 a local art gallery, Véhicule Art, opened an exhibition called "Brother André's Heart." In this CBC clip, a reporter talks to the show's curator and asks how non-believers and non-Montrealers become interested in the oratory. "It's better than the wax museum. and it's cheaper too," says Frank Vitale. "It's the only place in North America you can see someone's heart exhibited in public."
. After Brother André died at age 91 on Jan. 6, 1937, Archbishop Charbonneau of Montreal requested that Brother André's heart be removed and preserved as a potential object of veneration.
. This practice can be traced back to the removal and display of the hearts of French kings as a sign of gratitude and adoration.
. The archbishop also asked that all of Brother André's personal effects be preserved.

. Brother André's open casket was displayed at the oratory for six days after his death. Thousands turned out to file past his body: 75,000 every 24 hours, according to one estimate at the time. Officials at the oratory put the number at one million.
. Just before the funeral mass was held on Jan. 12, 1937, thousands were still waiting outside. Church officials brought Brother André's casket out so the pilgrims could see his body before he was interred.

. The heart of Brother André was sealed in a preserving solution in a vial. It was originally placed in the oratory near the black granite-encased tomb that held Brother André's remains.
. In 1939 the heart was relocated to Brother André's former office. Priests complained that foot traffic from pilgrims was interfering with their privacy, and church officials believed the heart was inviting a "public cult" that might threaten Brother André's beatification.

. On the night of March 16, 1973, thieves stole Brother André's heart from a room that was open to the public during the day but locked at night. Within days they contacted the oratory to demand a ransom but were turned down. Church officials did not want to reward criminal behaviour. "Besides," said Fr. Bernard LaFrenière, "the idea of buying or selling a heart is in very poor taste, especially the heart of someone like Brother André."

. The Montreal artist-run gallery Véhicule Art held its exhibition, called "Brother André's Heart," from July 17 to 28, 1973. Some of the artworks dealt specifically with the theme of the heart, but others did not.
. A press release about the show depicted a heart wrapped in thorns. It promised works by "improperly trained artists," "big art by big artists" "non art by non artists," "strange hobbyists" and "crummy little inspirations."

. In December 1974, close to two years after the heart was stolen, Montreal lawyer Frank Shoofey received a phone call from someone asking if he was interested to know where the heart was. He was directed to a storage locker in a Montreal apartment building, where the vial containing the heart was found in a box inside another box.
. Police never found the thieves.
. The heart is now on display at the oratory, secured behind metal bars.

. Brother André's heart has continued to inspire Canadian artists. In 1992 playwright Linda Griffiths wrote Brother André's Heart and in 1997 the band Blue Rodeo released a song of the same name. Its lyrics say:
Did they ever pay the ransom
On Brother Andre's heart
I once saw it bleed on his feast day
The blood ran cold and grey
Medium: Radio
Program: Quebec Now
Broadcast Date: Aug. 5, 1973
Guest(s): Francine Larrivée, Frank Vitale
Reporter: Carmel Dumas
Duration: 5:46
Photo: Source: Concordia University

Last updated: October 15, 2012

Page consulted on April 22, 2014

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