Saint of the Day – 6 January – St André Bessette C.S.C. (1845-1937) – known as Brother André (French: Frère André) and since his canonization as Saint André of Montreal, was a lay brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross and a significant figure of the Roman Catholic Church among French-Canadians, credited with thousands of reported miraculous cures associated within his pious devotion to Saint Joseph. Bessette was declared venerable in 1978 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Pope Benedict XVI approved the decree of sainthood for Blessed André on 19 February 2010, with the formal canonization taking place on 17 October 2010.
St. André was born Alfred Bessette in Quebec, 1845. Sickness and weakness dogged André from birth. He was the eighth of 12 children born to a French Canadian couple near Montreal. Adopted at 12, when both parents had died, he became a farmhand. Various trades followed: shoemaker, baker, blacksmith—all failures. He was a factory worker in the United States during the boom times of the Civil War.
At 25, André applied for entrance into the Congregation of the Holy Cross. After a year’s novitiate, he was not admitted because of his weak health. But with an extension and the urging of Bishop Bourget, he was finally received. He was given the humble job of doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, with additional duties as sacristan, laundry worker and messenger. “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and there I remained 40 years,” he said. In his little room near the door, he spent much of the night on his knees. On his windowsill, facing Mount Royal, was a small statue of Saint Joseph, to whom he had been devoted since childhood. When asked about it he said, “Some day, Saint Joseph is going to be honoured in a very special way on Mount Royal!”
When he heard someone was ill, he visited to bring cheer and to pray with the sick person. He would rub the sick person lightly with oil taken from a lamp burning in the college chapel. Word of healing powers began to spread.
When an epidemic broke out at a nearby college, André volunteered to nurse. Not one person died. The trickle of sick people to his door became a flood. His superiors were uneasy; diocesan authorities were suspicious; doctors called him a quack. “I do not cure,” he said again and again. “Saint Joseph cures.” In the end he needed four secretaries to handle the 80,000 letters he received each year. He prayed with them to God through the intercession of St. Joseph. Hundreds credit their cures to St. André’s prayers.
For many years the Holy Cross authorities had tried to buy land on Mount Royal. Brother André and others climbed the steep hill and planted medals of Saint Joseph. Suddenly, the owners yielded. André collected $200 to build a small chapel and began receiving visitors there—smiling through long hours of listening, applying Saint Joseph’s oil. Some were cured, some not. The pile of crutches, canes and braces grew.
Statue of Brother André by Joseph-Émile Brunet on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, QC, Canada
The chapel also grew. By 1931, there were gleaming walls, but money ran out. “Put a statue of Saint Joseph in the middle. If he wants a roof over his head, he’ll get it.” The magnificent Oratory on Mount Royal took 50 years to build. By the 1920s, the Oratory hosted more than a million pilgrims annually and hundreds of cures were attributed to his prayers every year. The sickly boy who could not hold a job died at 92.
St. André Bessette died in Montreal on January 6, 1937. It is estimated that more than a million people attended his wake and funeral. He is the first Saint of the Congregation of Holy Cross.