Article by Fr Thomas Rosica, CSB
(published in National Post)
ROME – On Sunday, Canadian Brother André Bessette, founder of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, will be proclaimed a Saint at the Vatican. He is one of six new saints to be made by Pope Benedict XVI. Born Alfred Bessette into a large Catholic family in 1845 in the Quebec village of Saint-Grégoire d’Iberville, the baby was so frail as a newborn that his father, Isaac, didn’t expect him to live for more than a day.
The Bessette family was besieged with tragedies. In 1855, when Alfred was 10 years old, his father died in a logging accident. In order to provide for her children, Alfred’s mother was forced to separate them from each other and sent them to live with various members of their extended family. Only Alfred was able to stay with his mother due to his own delicate health. Two years later Madame Bessette died of tuberculosis.
After Alfred was orphaned, he lived with his aunt’s family and was frequently sick as a young boy, rarely attending school. At age 18, he set out for the United States where he followed the path of many French-Canadians before him working for four years on farms, in factories and in textile mills in New England. Throughout his American sojourn, Alfred remained frail and sickly, as he searched for his real vocation.
In 1867 he returned to Canada, settling in the town of Sainte-Césaire in Quebec. He began helping Fr. André Provençal, the pastor of the local parish. In 1870, convinced that his young parishioner was surely being called by God, wise priest asked Alfred to consider religious life within the Congregation of Holy Cross. Alfred was 25 years old and reluctantly agreed to the advice of his mentor.
Fr. Provençal wrote to the superiors of the Congregation of Holy Cross: “I am sending you a saint.”
When Alfred applied for vows, his religious superiors decided they could not accept him knowing that his poor health would be an impediment to future ministry. Alfred was devastated. A few weeks later, the Bishop of Montreal visited College Notre-Dame, which was also the location of the novitiate community. Alfred begged the Bishop to intercede with the Holy Cross superiors, saying “My only ambition is to serve God in the most humble tasks.” The superiors relented and admitted Alfred to vows as a brother of Holy Cross. On February 2, 1874, Bessette’s religious name, André, was given to him by his superiors. Alfred had chosen the name in honor of his parish priest who had a major influence on his life.
For nearly 40 years Brother André worked as a porter at the College of Notre-Dame in the Montreal neighborhood of Côtes-des-Neiges. Speaking about his assignment as doorman, he once quipped, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door.” As porter of the College, Brother André lived in a small room located near the main entrance did many menial tasks such as washing the floors and windows, cleaning lamps, bringing in the firewood and looking after the laundry of the students. He was also the students’ barber.
Brother André urged people who came to him to pray with confidence and perseverance. Word spread quickly when many of those with whom he prayed were healed. Brother André insisted, “I am nothing…only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.” While some supported him, many others opposed him and even considered him dangerous to the well being of the school’s reputation because they regarded him as a charlatan. Others were concerned for the health of the children, fearing the possibility of contagion in the school spread from diseases carried by the sick who frequented Brother André. As the tensions increased at the College with so many of the sick coming to see the porter, the school officials permitted him to receive the sick in the nearby tramway station rather than the College.
The school’s physician, Dr. Charette, slandered Brother André as a fraud, calling him “Brother Greaser” because of the St. Joseph oil André applied on the sick while he was praying with them. The doctor was soon to eat his own words. His wife fell ill and began to hemorrhage; no medical treatment could stop the bleeding. Fearing her imminent death, she begged her husband to seek Brother André’s intercession. The doctor was upset with this request but accommodated his wife and asked Brother André to visit her and pray for her. His wife was miraculously healed. From that time on, Dr. Charette became one of André’s supporters.
Brother André always had a strong devotion to St. Joseph, and in 1900 received permission to raise money for a shrine to St. Joseph. The first shelter was constructed in 1904. Holy Cross authorities allowed for a room to be added to the Chapel and Brother André was assigned to live in that room where he could receive pilgrims and pray for them. He spent his days seeing sick people who came to him, and spent his evenings visiting the sick who could not make it to the Oratory. Construction on what would become known as Saint Joseph’s Oratory began in 1914. A crypt church seating 1,000 was completed in 1917. By the 1920’s the Oratory hosted over one million pilgrims annually, and hundreds of cures were attributed to his prayers every year.
Brother André died in Montreal on January 6, 1937 without seeing the completion of his dream. Over a million people came to pay their respects around his mortal remains during the week following his death. He beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 23, 1982 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On Oct. 17, 2010, Brother André Bessette will be canonized, becoming the first male Canadian-born saint.
The miracle leading to his canonization occurred in 1999 when a nine-year old boy had been the victim of an automobile accident, leaving him with a serious cranial injury and putting him in an irreversible coma leading toward death. The prayers of the people closest to him, along with the intercession of Brother André, brought him back to consciousness and health, and this was deemed scientifically unexplainable by medical experts.
In his day, Brother André was a porter on Mount Royal. Now he is one of Heaven’s special gatekeepers. He left us a powerful example of how to welcome strangers, the homeless, sick, poor and hungry into our communities. Some will come to our doors rejoicing, and others in fear; some will come healed and others to seek that healing. The important thing is that we open doors and build bridges to those who come, instead of erecting obstacles and barriers. As an adult, Brother André stood just five feet tall, yet he was a giant of faith, spirituality and humanity, whose shadow still hovers mightily over Montreal and Canada. In the humble porter’s own words, “It is with the smallest brushes that the artists paint the most beautiful pictures.” May Canada learn from this great, little man who was truly one of God’s masterpieces in our time.