Shadows striped the floor of the dimly lit alcove. Tingling with adrenaline, the man’s fingers were shaking. He started with each small noise that echoed through the vast, deserted spaces as Saint Joseph’s Oratory readied itself to shut down for the night. Unnerved by what he was about to do, everyday noises – the heavy purr of the escalators and the spastic fizzing and clicking of faraway florescent lights – seemed exaggerated and somehow accusatory. Glancing around him, the man froze as he glimpsed, in the semi-darkness, a human form across the room. But it was only himself, reflected in the glass of the diorama display. There, enclosed within his own private world, far from the depredations of time, stood Frère André, erect in the dimness of his erstwhile office, one hand delicately poised on the back of his chair, his eyes gazing thoughtfully into the middle distance as if lost in thought, or prayer. To the staring man, the mannequin’s posture seemed to contain a mute, oblique rebuke, and its uncanny silence seemed to spring, not from simple inanimacy, but from secret knowledge. Uneasy, the man turned away, trying to shake off a sudden spasm of dread. He had to pull it together. The others were waiting. And at any moment someone could come.
Despite his unsteady fingers, the man soon mastered the multiple locks, and the huge vault door swung silently open on its massive hinges, revealing the red-lit heart. Seen close up, the rectangular iron-and-glass reliquary was imposing and surprisingly large: rendered in an austere art deco style surmounted by a squat iron cross and the letters “R.I.P.” Seizing it, the man grunted in surprise and consternation when the reliquary refused to yield. Swinging his flashlight closer, he realized it was solidly attached to its marble plinth. In wresting it by force from its niche, the man inadvertently chipped the hard stone, sending small pieces skittering wildly across the dark floor.
Liberated of its iron cage, the nude cube felt cold and heavy, and wept slightly in his hands. Save for its light and fragile cargo, an 11 ounce human heart floating in formaldehyde, it looked strikingly like the thick glass bricks often used to build semi-transparent walls in upscale bathrooms Standing with the heart in his hands, and his own heart in his throat, the man had the inescapable sense that a Rubicon of sorts had been crossed. Objectively, it was not too late to restore the relic to its resting place and simply flee. But the deed seemed already done. As he moved, the heart seemed to slosh accusingly at him. With a shudder of revulsion and superstitious fear, the man slipped it under his winter coat, holding its bulk firmly in place with his folded arms as he moved hurriedly across the U-shaped room towards the exit.
But, belatedly, he remembered the vault door, still hanging open. He should shut it to preserve, to the casual eye, the semblance of normality in the silent room. Once again, the heavy glass door swung on its silent hinges. Shut. Case closed. Satisfied, the figure once again darted across the room, and was swallowed up into its shadows. Minutes later, he sighed with relief as his sweating face hit the cold air of the Montreal night.
It happened almost fifty years ago, in March of 1973, at the tail end of another interminable Canadian winter. Roberta Flack’s languorous “Killing me Softly with his Song” had replaced the peppier tones of Steve Wonder’s iconic “Superstition” at the top of the charts across North America. The shock of the October Crisis – when self-proclaimed guerillas of the F.L.Q. (Front de Libération du Québec) had kidnapped two men, killing one, had led to the declaration of martial law by Trudeau le père (then a prime minister, not an airport) – was three uneasy years in the rear-view mirror. The province was in the midst of painfully reinventing itself: breaking free of the chrysalis of confessional identity and forging a new era in which language, rather than faith, would become paramount. In February 1973, the month before the theft, the Gendron Report had recommended making French the sole official language of the province of Quebec. And waiting in the wings was the “spiritual godfather of Quebec’s separatist movement,”[i] René Lévesque. His turn at the province’s helm as its first openly separatist premier was only three years distant. But though the ex-journalist, Parti Québécois founder, and famous chain-smoker had not yet come into the full measure of his power, he already exuded an indisputable an indisputable authority and a certain leathery glamour.
It was in the midst of this process of transformation – away from religion and towards language as the province’s defining feature – that the preserved heart of Frère André was stolen from its imposing vault in Montreal’s iconic Oratoire Saint-Joseph. The relic was missing for more than twenty-one months, from March 15, 1973 until December 21, 1974, when it was returned by its thieves just in time for Christmas. For some Montréalais, the return of the errant organ was the welcome last chapter of an incomprehensible and tasteless farce. But for the shell-shocked devout, many of whom had been praying daily for the heart’s return, it was a true Christmas miracle: a contemporary retelling, in post-révolution tranquille Quebec of the familiar, sacred story of innocent suffering and ultimate spiritual victory.
Who stole Frère André’s heart? And why? What was it about this theft that aroused such interest and such passion in saints and skeptics alike, across la belle province and well beyond? What happened to the heart during its long “odyssée clandestine”[ii] - the nearly two-year period when the heart of Montreal itself was M.I.A.? And finally, did the heart’s return truly signal the transcendent righting of a wrong? Or was its reappearance the result of a darker, grittier backstory of compromise and collusion still unknown to the public