On January 7th here in Canada we honour one of Canada’s most beloved saints, André Bessette (1845-1937), a humble lay-brother who went on to found Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. A sickly boy, brought up in a difficult childhood mired in poverty in rural Quebec; his lumberjack father was killed by a falling tree, leaving his wife a 40 year-old widow with ten children, when Alfred was ten – and then his mother also died a few years after that. Alfred, as was his baptismal name, was sent to live with relatives, and struggled to find his vocation and path in life. He worked at various jobs around Montreal and in the northern United States, before finally joining the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal. Undernourished, undersized and undereducated, he was going to be refused, and was only accepted only after the intervention of Bishop Ignace Bourget, when he was initially rejected due to his 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 André – the name he adopted in religion. Although small and often in precarious health as a child, as he went on to live a healthy 91 years, vigorous and sharp until his dying day. His task was porter, and as he joked, ‘when he joined the Order, his superiors right away showed him the door…’
What would have been a quiet, hidden life became quite public, as the new brother, who by discipline, prayer and a spiritual asceticism, but most of all with humour and humility (which always go together), achieved a deep holiness, which was widely renowned, at least by those with eyes to see. He was soon sought out as a confidant and miracle-worker, but Brother André would invariably send them to Saint Joseph – Ite ad Joseph – Go to Joseph! Soon unending streams of the sick and troubled came to him – just as they had come to Christ. Brother André 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. The Order had to depute four secretaries to handle the deluge of mail he received, and when good Brother André died on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, January 6th, 1937, a million people lined past his coffin. He was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1982, and canonized on October 17, 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. God does indeed exalt the lowliness and hiddenness of His servants.
The miracles, which continue to this day, are too numerous to count; healings abounded, and so did the crowds, so that the good brother had to meet them in the trolley station across the road from the convent. But it did not take much, for God in His goodness is quite liberal. One time, Brother André walked by a sick boy in the hospital, and just told him as he passed by the hall to ‘go outside and play’. And so the boy did, fully cured.
But each and every healing Brother André 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 André 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 André’s’ is already there incipiently in the thousands of pilgrims who still stream to the Oratory. And we may hope that such faith, which can quite literally move mountains, may yet be again in la belle province, and across this land.
Saintly Brother André, priez pour nous!