Saint of the Day – 6 January – Saint André Bessette CSC (1845-1937) “God’s Doorkeeper” more commonly known as Brother André and since his Canonisation as Saint André of Montreal, was a lay brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Apostle of Prayer, the Holy Eucharist, the Passion of Christ and of charity to the sick. He is famous for the many miracles worked during his and since his death. He was a devotee of St Joseph and constantly attributed all the cures to his intercession.
Saint Brother André, born Alfred Bessette on 8 August 1845 in Saint-Grégoire d’Iberville, Quebec, was the eighth in a family of 12 children, four of whom died in infancy. At birth, he was so frail that the curé baptised him in an emergency ritual the following day. The family was working-class, his father, Isaac Bessette, was a carpenter and lumberman and his mother, Clothilde Foisy Bessette, saw to the education of her children. In 1849, with employment scarce and his family living in poverty, Alfred’s father moved to Farnham, Quebec to work as a lumberman but soon perished tragically crushed by a falling tree. André was only nine years old and his mother died of tuberculosis three years later, when he was 12 years of age, he was an orphan, without money or education.
He remained small for his age and rather frail. He tried working as a helper on his uncle’s farm and he tried learning a number of trades – shoemaking, baking, welding and blacksmithing but his health did not permit him to persevere in any of them. When he was about 18, he emigrated to New England, where he found work in the textile industry.
He returned to Canada in 1867 and he pastor of his parish, the Fr André Provençal, noticed the devotion and generosity of the young man. He decided to present Alfred to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal, writing a note to the superior, “I’m sending you a saint.” Although he was initially rejected by the order because of frail health, Archbishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal intervened on his behalf and in 1872, Alfred was accepted and entered the novitiate of the congregation, receiving the religious name of Brother André, by which he was known for the rest of his life. He made his final vows on 2 February 1874, at the age of 28. Although he spoke fluent French and English, he could neither read nor write.
For 40 years, he was the porter at Notre-Dame College in Montreal. He also looked after the laundry and the sacristy, he ran errands and cleaned. “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years,” he said. As his work permitted, Brother André visited the sick and met with the handicapped and the chronically ill. His great confidence in Saint Joseph inspired him to recommend the saint’s devotion to all those who were afflicted.
On his many visits to the sick in their homes, he would rub the sick person lightly with oil taken from a lamp burning in the college chapel and recommend them, in prayer, to Saint Joseph. People claimed that they had been cured through the prayers of the good Brother and Saint Joseph and they were grateful their prayers had been heard.
His reputation spread throughout Montreal and many brought their sick relatives to see the College door-keeper. They came in such great numbers that there were complaints from the parents of students and Brother André’s superiors as well as doctors, the compromise solution was to authorise him to place a statue of Saint Joseph on the mountainside, facing the College.
In 1904, with the help of some lay friends he built a wooden chapel on Mount Royal. The cost, $200, came from the offerings of those whom he had helped and from the nickels he charged students for haircuts. Pilgrims flocked to the chapel and so many people wrote to Brother André with requests for prayers that four secretaries were required to answer their letters. The chapel was enlarged in 1908 and a stone crypt was erected in 1917. Construction of the Basilica began in 1924. It was finally completed in 1967. Saint Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal is known around the world as a place of pilgrimage. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are drawn to this place of prayer and recollection.
Brother André died on 6 January 1937, at the age of 91. A million people filed past his coffin.
The remains of Brother André lie in the church he helped build. His body lies in a tomb built below the Oratory’s Main Chapel, except for his heart, which is preserved in a reliquary in the same Oratory. The heart was stolen in March 1973, but was recovered in December 1974 with the help of famous criminal attorney Frank Shoofey. He was declared Blessed on 23 May 1982 by Saint John Paul II. On Sunday, 17 October 2010, Pope Benedict Canonised him.
André Bessette was above all a man of prayer. Father André Provençal, who had recommended him as a candidate for joining the religious of the Holy Cross, had noticed his piety when Alfred was a young man. Alfred was hesitant to present himself to the Holy Cross novitiate because he had so little education but Father Provençal managed to persuade him that one didn’t have to know how to read or write in order to pray. St André’s spirit of prayer overcame the reticence of his Holy Cross superiors. The novice master was convinced that even if he turned out to be unsuitable for work, he could surely pray and teach by example.
Prayer was at the heart of his works of mercy. He prayed with the sick and involved them in praying, inviting them to reconciliation with God. He regularly prayed well into the night. He meditated on the passion of Jesus and saw the suffering of Jesus in the suffering people who came to him for help.
Like Moses on the mountain, he spent hours in intercessory prayer on behalf of those who asked him to talk to God on their behalf, often at the foot of the crucifix and before the Blessed Sacrament. That is where he found the courage, the patience and the serenity, to carry on his joyful love of all who came to his door.
He understood Saint Joseph’s life to be much like his own – a worker, at times an emigrant, fulfilling the role of a servant in an educational context. This was also the reality of many of the people who shared with Brother André their difficulties, suffering, weaknesses and illnesses. His love of God and neighbour became a movement of the people, based entirely on word of mouth and the witness of those who had received help from his prayers.
St André Bessette, Pray for us too, we beg you, amen.