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Mim Meets Montreal

Photo by Nathalie Laflamme.

Episode 2: In which the Aussie seeks historical enlightenment

My great, great (plus a couple more “greats”) grandfather was a pickpocketer. No, I’m just kidding. Although, it might be true – after all, Australia was colonized by convicts in 1788. Maybe the late Mr. Kempson was one of them. I wonder, what kinds of people were in the Kempson lineage?

On a spontaneously sunny Saturday afternoon (what I learnt is termed an “Indian summer”), my friends took me to visit Saint-Joseph’s Oratory. Its long history and thought-provoking grandeur got me philosophizing on life.

Photo by Nathalie Laflamme.

While the oratory is often bustling with hundreds of people (it is estimated that two million visit each year), the place somehow radiates a reassuring sense of tranquility. Strolling through the gardens, sitting in the chapel and then gazing at thousands of candles, lit in dedication to Saint Joseph, filled me with a profound sense of peace.

In its humble beginnings, the oratory was literally a small chapel, with its blessing taking place in 1904 by Brother André with the help of Brother Abundius and a few lay friends. Meanwhile, in Australia, colonists were converting their bush huts into terrace houses. The particular spot of land where the Kempsons had pitched their tents a few decades earlier came to be known as Melbourne. Fun fact: Melbourne was the only Australian settlement not founded by convicts, whereas Sydney was originally titled “Sin City” for exact opposite status. Perhaps this means that the first Mr. Kempson didn’t commit a crime after all.

Saint-Joseph’s Oratory is certainly worth a visit, whether it be for religious interest, touristic fulfillment, deep and meaningful reflection or caloric combustion (there are 283 steps to climb). You can also kneel on 99 of those steps and make 99 prayers. There’s a separate staircase dedicated to this physically unpleasant exercise, a tradition wherein visitors endure pain in order to pay respect to Jesus Christ, who suffered on the cross.

This century-old building instilled in me a curiosity, a desire to investigate my family history. Ironically, there won’t be much investigation. All I have to do is pick up one particular book written by Rachel Kempson, the mother of actress Vanessa Redgrave, which sits upon my Melbourne bookshelf, yet to be read. I also wonder, how many of us younguns of the 21st century actually know our family roots?

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