Close to Antoni Gaudí’s famous Park Güell in Gràcia, in the north end of Barcelona, stands the Royal Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountain. It was designed by architect Francesc Berenguer Mestres in a neo-Romanesque mixed with Modernista style, featuring a broad esplanade that takes advantage of the steep topography of the site. The church is in fact the chapel of what was originally an orphanage for girls and is now a foster home for children aged 2-18 years old, dedicated appropriately enough to St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus.
The institution was established by Blessed Mother Petra de San José, foundress of the Congregation of the Mothers of the Forsaken. Mother Petra founded the order in 1880 in the city of Málaga in Southern Spain, after discerning that her vocation was not to the Mercedarian Order which she had originally joined. After consulting with her bishop and obtaining permission to leave the Mercedarians, she brought together a group of women in order to care for, among others, the orphaned and the elderly. Her work spread to many cities of Spain as well as a number of other countries.
In 1905 while Mother Petra was working at the shrine in Barcelona, she was overjoyed to learn that Pope St. Pius X decided to confirm in perpetuity upon the shrine a plenary indulgence to anyone who makes a properly disposed pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Joseph once a year. Blessed Petra died in Barcelona at the convent of the shrine in 1906, and is buried in the crypt chapel. In 1908 King Alfonso XIII granted royal patronage to the shrine in recognition not only of the permanent indulgence granted by Pius X, but also in recognition of the good works of Mother Petra and her sisters throughout Spain in caring for the poor. From that time it has been known as a royal sanctuary.
With its increased popularity, during the early 20th century a popular custom among locals was to write letters to St. Joseph, care of the shrine, asking for his intercession. These letters were subsequently collected together every month and burnt, so as to protect the identities of the senders, but also in an echo of the Catalan custom of writing down one’s sins on a piece of paper and burning it in the communal bonfire on St. John’s Night. The miracles wrought by St. Joseph’s intercession made the image of St. Joseph holding the Christ Child at the shrine very popular, to the extent that the statue was canonically crowned in 1921.
During the Civil War, the sisters and their charges had to flee from the Leftists, who sacked the complex. The sisters were worried that the tomb and body of their foundress would be desecrated, and with help from some locals managed to sneak back into the building, dig up Mother Petra’s remains, and abscond with them; the men who helped the sisters escape with the remains lied to the Leftist authorities who were inspecting the site, telling them that they had dug up the body and burnt it. After the war the sisters returned in 1939, Mother Petra’s remains were re-interred in the crypt, and the complex was restored.
In 1961, the sisters decided to build a separate chapel for the miraculous image of St. Joseph, on the upper esplanade that links the convent, church, and dormitories. This would allow them to have uninterrupted use of the convent church for themselves and their children, while at the same time allowing members of the public to make their pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Joseph at any time, without access to the church being restricted. The beautiful little building, in a neo-Renaissance style, was completed in 1971.
Mother Petra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1994, and the cause for her canonization is still pending. This church therefore, is not only a shrine dedicated to St. Joseph, but also a shrine to Blessed Petra as well. The nuns are still in residence at the shrine, and today care for approximately 150 young people.