Saint André Bessette: Montreal’s Miracle Worker
by Brother André Marie
October 25, 2004
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by Brother André Marie
October 25, 2004
In the city of Montreal, Province of Quebec, Canada, on a rise of earth known as Mount Royal, there stands a religious edifice of staggering proportions. It is three hundred and sixty-one feet high, taller than either Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. . . .
It is the Oratory of Saint Joseph, a worthy tribute to him who is the head of the Holy Family and the Patron of the Universal Church.
If one were to ask any Canadian for the name of the person who built this magnificent House of God, he would be told, “Brother André.” Yet, this little lay brother’s name does not appear on any of the official records of the building of the Oratory. He was only a porter — a doorman — at a college owned and operated by his religious congregation. He was a little man, both in size and, if one were to judge by appearance, in importance. He was not a priest; therefore he could neither offer Mass nor preach. Because of poor education, he did not know how to read or write until he reached the age of twenty-five.
How is it, then, that this little brother is known and venerated all over the world as the little saint who built the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal?
The Early Years
On August 9, 1845, Alfred Bessette was born to Isaac and Clothilde Bessette, the eighth in what would become a family of twelve children. The Bessettes were a poor French Canadian family who lived in the farming village of St. Gregoire, thirty miles from Montreal. . . . Alfred was born a very sick baby; so sick, in fact, that his father baptized him shortly after birth, fearing he would not survive. This lack of physical health and strength stayed with him throughout his entire life, yet he lived to the incredible age of ninety-one.
Recalling what he could of those early years, Brother André later told of how happy they were for him, of how great was his love for his parents, especially his mother, who had special affection for her frail child. But that happiness was soon tempered by tragedy. When he was six years old, his father was killed in a lumbering accident near the town of Farnham. Four years later, his mother, trying to raise twelve children single-handedly, contracted tuberculosis and was forced to put the children up for adoption. Keeping with her only the feeblest one, Alfred, she went to live with her sister, Mrs. Timothée Nadeau, in St. Cesaire. Two years later, in 1857, she died. Brother André later recalled, with great love and affection, her last days. . . .
Alfred was but twelve years old when his mother died. He was now an orphan, separated from his brothers and sisters. But the next ten years of his life would see the accelerated formation of a saint.
After the death of his mother, he remained with the Nadeau family. Timothée put him to work on the family farm, but, try as he may, little Alfred could not cope with strenuous farm labor. He simply did not have the physical stamina required to perform the chores asked of him. Then his uncle sent him to a cobbler to learn the shoemaking trade, but this didn’t work either. The poor lad was so clumsy that he was constantly pricking his fingers with the sharp cobbler’s awl. This scenario was repeated over and over again: He would take a job and work at it as hard as he could, but always his poor health made it impossible for him to continue. . . .
Father André Provençal
It was during this time that he came into contact with the priest who proved to be the worthy spiritual tutor of a saint, Father André Provençal, the Curé of Saint Césaire. It was Father Provençal who instructed little Alfred for his first Holy Communion. It was Father Provençal who inspired devotion to Saint Joseph. And it was also this holy parish priest who put Brother André on that road which, for him, would end in perfection — the road to a religious vocation. . . .
Across the street from Father Provençal’s parish Church was a new building that had been built during the time Alfred was away from Saint Césaire. The building was a school where some eighty pupils were taught by six brothers, members of a fledgling religious congregation known as the Congregation of the Holy Cross. . . .
Congregation of the Holy Cross - Acceptance and Profession
Alfred’s meeting with these brothers was an event of singular importance. He was impressed by them; their black habit with Roman collar, cincture and medal of Saint Joseph, their manly bearing and devotion all attracted him. Nevertheless, he was nervous. These men were educated; they ran a school — just the six of them — with eighty children. Alfred was still an illiterate. But Father Provençal soon relieved him of that worry, assuring his young friend there was a need in the order for janitors and manual laborers. . . . Then, in 1870, he made up his mind that, if they would have him, he would join the Congregation. They accepted him into the novitiate in Côte-des-Neiges, and he took the habit of the order. The novice master, Father Gastineau, gave him a great welcome. Perhaps he was expecting much of the new arrival, because before Brother André got to the novitiate, the novice master received a letter from Father Provençal which said, “I am sending a saint to your Congregation.” . . .
Our Lady’s Porter and Miracles
His first assignment was as porter of the College of Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Coeur in Côte-des-Neiges, the same college where he spent much of his novitiate. This was the position he held for nearly forty years. . . .
God, knowing that men do not think often enough of their final end, nor of Him, nor of the truths of religion, gives human nature external signs of His presence and the truth of His religion. . . . As is plain from Church History and the lives of the saints, the divine foundation of the Church was proved by miracles in every age. . . .
As for Brother André, the public nature and frequency of the miracles he worked make them impossible to dispute. He cured many of the students at the college, so many that he developed a reputation as a great miracle worker.
One day, as the pious porter was scrubbing the floor in the parlor of the college, a lady came to see him, having heard of his reputation. She was so afflicted with rheumatism that she could only walk with the assistance of two men supporting her by holding each arm. Her request to Brother André was simple enough: “I am suffering from rheumatism. I want you to heal me.” Not looking up from the floor he was still busily scrubbing, Brother André said to the men assisting her, “Let her walk.” The woman walked out unassisted. . . .
Father Henri-Paul Bergeron, a Holy Cross Priest who knew Frère André, gives an account in his book, The Wonder Man of Mount Royal, of an event that recalls some of those recorded in the Gospels:“One day as he was going along Bienville Street in Montreal, a sick woman was brought to him. Immediately all of the sick of the neighborhood, children, men and women, were brought out until the whole street was filled with the sick and the infirm. Brother André attended to all with kindness, and his chauffeur. . . making his way through the crowd, remarked:On another occasion, when the porter was in the infirmary, he saw a student sick in bed. He told the boy, who had been ordered to rest by the school doctor, to get up. “You’re not sick, you lazy bones! Go and play with the others.” This the boy did, in perfect health and good cheer. The story of the incident soon spread around the college. Teachers, the doctor, students and parents alike marveled at the miracles wrought by the confident prayer of the young brother.
‘How wonderful; it is like a scene from the life of Our Lord: everyone rushed forth to beg for favors and cures.’
‘Perhaps so’ replied the Brother, ‘but God is surely making use of a very vile instrument.’”
We say that the miracles were wrought by the prayers of the brother. Perhaps, if he were here, he would rebuke us for saying this. He never claimed that he worked a single miracle. In his humility he gave all the credit to Saint Joseph, in whose power Brother André had infinite confidence. In fact, any attempt to credit him with miracles brought a stern reprimand from the normally kind religious. One day a visitor said to him, “You are better than Saint Joseph. We pray to him and nothing happens, but when we come to see you we are cured.” The brother was so incensed at the slander of the Holy Patriarch that he screamed, “Get out of here. It is Saint Joseph who cured you, not I. Get out! Throw him out!” The incident shook the frail constitution of the holy man so much that he spent three days sick in bed. . . .
The Oratory of Saint Joseph
In the midst of all of the excitement, the brother’s heart became fixed on one holy ambition: the erection in Montreal of a shrine to Saint Joseph. . . . The shrine was in the thoughts and prayers of the porter for quite some time before he dared ask permission to build such a thing. He let only a handful of privileged friends know of his holy aspiration. Every once in a while he would let out a stray remark impressing on the hearer the need for a chapel to Saint Joseph. Some of these occasions came with certain signs of the divine origin of the brother’s dream. One of his confreres told him of a strange phenomenon in his cell: It seemed that every time this religious put his statue of Saint Joseph facing his bed, he came back to find the statue turned around, facing the Mount Royal. Laughing, Frère André told his confrere, “It is not strange at all; it simply means that Saint Joseph wants to be honored on the mountain.”
Certainly Brother André wanted Saint Joseph honored on the mountain. In 1890, he took a young student with him on one of his regular Thursday meditation walks. Taking the student up to the mountainside across the street from the school, he told him, “I have hidden a medal of Saint Joseph here. We will pray that he will arrange the purchase of this land for us.” For six years he persevered in prayer for that intention, and in 1896, his prayers were rewarded. The Holy Cross Congregation purchased the land, fearing that such a prime piece of real estate would attract a club or resort which would be an unwholesome distraction so near the students. After the land was purchased, Brother André put a statue of Saint Joseph in a little cave on his chosen site. Placing a bowl in front of the statue, he planned on collecting alms from Saint Joseph’s petitioners, alms which would be used to build a chapel.
To put it simply, what started out as a fifteen-by eighteen foot chapel in 1904 became a minor basilica in 1955, and was completed — interior and all — in 1966. In his lifetime, the shrine became big enough to warrant having a full-time guardian, a job to which Brother André was appointed in 1909. For the present, however, we would rather discuss the life of the holy builder than the building itself.
From the moment that he conceived the idea to the day he died, the Oratory of Saint Joseph was a sacred task which Blessed André pursued with burning zeal. Everything that he could do in the confines of religious obedience to make the shrine a reality, he did immediately. . . .
Zeal for Souls
Many of the people who sought cures from Frère André were good Catholics; but others were heretics and unbelievers of all kinds. One of the witnesses at his cause for beatification said, “As to heretics, schismatics and also unbelievers, Brother André treated them with more kindness and sympathy than the Catholics. He wanted to gain the confidence of such people. When the right time came he talked to them of the goodness of God and of religion. . . He profited by the visits of Protestants and unbelievers to slide in a good word to them, an evangelical word.”
It was by this kind of work that the guardian of the Oratory wrought thousands of conversions, many among lapsed and lukewarm Catholics, but also among Protestants, Freemasons and Jews. Brother André looked upon the humility of the non-Catholic, in coming to a Catholic brother for a cure, as the beginning of faith. In this he was imitating Our Lord Himself. . . . About this, the Blessed said, “Those who are cured quickly often are people who have no faith or little faith. On the other hand, those who have solid faith are not cured so quickly, for the good God prefers to allow them to suffer that they will be sanctified even more.” . . .
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