Today is the feast of the one of Canada’s most beloved saints, our own home-grown Andre Bessette (1845-1937), the inspiration and founder of Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. A sickly boy, who lived a difficult impecunious childhood in rural Quebec – his lumberjack father was killed by a falling tree, leaving his wife a 40 year-old widow with ten children – Alfred, as was his baptismal name, struggled to find his vocation, working at various jobs here and in the United States, before he was accepted by the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal. He was only accepted with the intervention of Bishop Ignace Bourget, after his initial rejection due to ill health. But Alfred’s own pastor knew what he was about, writing in his recommendation ‘I am sending you a saint…’
And so he was. It seems religious life was good for Brother Andre’s – the name he adopted in religion – precarious health, as he went on to live a healthy 91 years, vigorous and sharp until his dying day. His task was porter, and as he said, ‘when he joined the Order, his superiors showed him the door…’
What would have been a quiet, hidden life became quite the event, as the new brother, his deep humility and holiness recognized by those with eyes to see, was soon sought out as a confidant and miracle-worker. He would recommend ‘devotion to Saint Joseph’ – Ite ad Joseph – and soon unending streams of the sick and troubled came to him – just as they had come to Christ. Brother Andre would say a prayer with them and often rub them with a salve of ‘Saint Joseph’s oil’, followed by countless physical, and spiritual, cures, inexplicable, at least by earthly, scientific means. Soon, the Order had to depute four secretaries to handle the deluge of mail he received, and when good Brother Andre died on the Epiphany, January 6th, 1937, a million people lined past his coffin. God does indeed exalt the lowliness of His servants.
Every healing Brother Andre attributed to Saint Joseph, saying that he himself did nothing much of anything at all, and in honour of the husband of Mary and foster-father of Christ, Brother Andre began raising funds for a fitting monument, in the Oratory that now stands today. At his death, in the midst of the Great Depression, the structure was left unfinished, with no roof, but was completed in the decades afterward, with the impressive church that now dominates Montreal’s skyline.
The great dome, visible from many miles away as one drives into the city, is a bold testament to Quebec’s, and Canada’s, still-visible Catholicism, on life-support, perhaps, but a sign that such faith as ‘little Andre’s’ is already there incipiently in the thousands of pilgrims who still stream to the Oratory, and that such faith may yet be again.