Hybridizer by M. Elaine Bessette, R., 1996
Blossoming: late May, early June
|Saint Brother André|
|Anniversary of Saint Brother André: August 9th
Feast of Saint Brother André: January 7th
Canonization of Saint Brother André: October 17, 2010
|Saint Brother André: Who is this man?|
|''I am a man just like you.''|
Brother André, CSC
Photo: Henri Larin - 1874
His name was Alfred Bessette. He was born on August 9, 1845, in the town of Saint-Grégoire d`Iberville, near Montreal. He was so frail that his parents baptized him themselves the very next day.
In 1849, with employment scarce and his family living in poverty, Alfred’s father decided to move to Farnham (in Quebec) where he hoped to earn a living as a lumberman. Tragically, he lost his life in an accident, crushed by a falling tree, when Alfred was only nine years old.
His mother found herself widowed at the age of forty with ten children in her care. She died of tuberculosis within three years. Later Brother Andre would say, “I rarely prayed for my mother, but I often prayed to her.”
His family fell apart, and Alfred was forced to face life at the tender age of twelve. Since he obviously did not have a trade, Alfred began a thirteen-year odyssey wandering from job to job with few belongings and little education. He was barely able to write his name or to read his prayer book.
Despite these drawbacks, Alfred had to make a living. He apprenticed here and there sometimes exploited by those shrewder than himself. At various times he worked as a tinsmith, blacksmith, baker, shoemaker and wagon driver.
Joining the stream of French-Canadian emigrants, the teenager traveled to New England for four years where he worked in the textile mills. Though his health was not robust, he worked doggedly. “Despite my limitations,” he said, “There was no one who worked harder than me.” He returned to Canada in 1867, as did thousands of his countrymen.
In 1870 Alfred applied to the novitiate of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal. His weak constitution made his superiors question his fitness. (He eventually lived to the age of 91!) In the end he was accepted and given the name Andre. He was assigned to be the doorkeeper at Collège Notre-Dame (secondary school). Brother Andre used to joke, “When I entered the community, my superiors showed me the door but I stuck around for 40 years.” In addition to his duties as receptionist, his tasks included washing floors and windows, cleaning lamps, bringing in firewood and carrying messages.
The Friendly Brother
After a while, the sick and the troubled began to seek out Brother Andre. He always urged them to pray to Saint Joseph. Soon people were reporting that their prayers were being answered. So for the next 25 years, he spent six to eight hours a day receiving those who sought him out, first in his tiny cubicle, then in the small tramway station across the street from the Collège. Using the money he received for giving haircuts to the students, he decided to build a small chapel, an oratory dedicated to Saint Joseph with the help of some friends. He was convinced that Saint Joseph wanted a permanent shrine on the mountainside.
Brother Andre made visits to the sick all around, even to the United States where he also had friends. More and more, people were finding relief from illnesses that the doctors could not explain. Some people began to use the word miracle-worker, but he always protested, “I’m nobody… just a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument in the service of Saint Joseph.” He even went so far as to say, “It’s silly to think that ‘Brother Andre works miracles.’ It is God and Saint Joseph who heal—not me! I will pray to Saint Joseph for you.” He did and the cures increased.
His public persona masked a playful and droll temperament which he revealed when with friends. “Don’t be gloomy; laugh a little,” he used to say between anecdotes. He was good-natured especially with the poor and the troubled and always tried to communicate his own sense of joy.
Though his eyes twinkled with kindness and a puckish sense of humor, yet he was a man of determination and uncompromising principle. He was deeply sensitive, moved to tears with the sick, weeping as his visitors shared their inner secrets. Brother Andre was beloved and accepted by ordinary people because, they said, he was one of them.
A Huge Venture
During all these years a great enterprise loomed on the horizon, as more and more people thronged the Oratory. The first tiny chapel was built in 1904. It rapidly became unable to hold the crowds who came to pray. So the chapel was enlarged in 1908 and again in 1910. Still, it was not enough. There would have to be a large church to fittingly honor Saint Joseph. So the Crypt Church was opened in 1917, seating a thousand. But this Crypt Church was only the beginning of an even more daunting project. For years Brother Andre along with his friends dreamed of creating a structure which would become the largest shrine in the world dedicated to Saint Joseph.
Nevertheless, Brother Andre never referred to it as “his” work. Quite the opposite, during great celebrations when people crowded the church, he practically disappeared, praying behind the main altar screen.
The Great Depression forced the construction of the basilica to come to a standstill. In 1936, the authorities of the Congregation of Holy Cross called a special meeting to decide whether or not to proceed since ice and snow were threatening the structure which was not yet roofed. The provincial superior finally asked Brother Andre for his opinion. The aging brother had only a few words to say before the assembly. “It’s not up to me; it’s up to Saint Joseph. Set his statue in the middle of the construction area. If he wants a roof over his head, he’ll take care of it.” They did: two months later there was enough money in hand to resume building.
Brother Andre spent hours in his office where thousands came to see him. Evenings, he visited homes and hospitals accompanied by friends. One of them once said, “Of course Brother Andre was a naturally big hearted person, but I think that it was his love of God that allowed him to give himself to the sick, the poor and the underprivileged.” He was in such good spirits on these trips that detractors grumbled that he just liked to go out for a ride with his friends. But he countered, “Some people think that it’s easy to visit the sick. But I can tell you, after a day’s work, it’s not fun.”
A natural optimist, he was nonetheless a keen observer of human nature. “It’s odd. I’m often asked for cures, but almost never for humility or a strong faith. Yet that’s what’s really important.” “If the soul is sick, that’s where you begin to treat.” So, he often asked, “How’s your faith going? Do you really believe that God can do something for you? Okay then, go to confession and receive Holy Communion then come back to see me.”
Brother Andre was aware of the value of redemptive suffering. His thoughts on this were insightful. “People who suffer have a real gift to offer God. They carry on day after day; well, right there is the miracle.”
A Man of God
There were people who claimed that Brother Andre passed on to them the charism of healing. To the contrary, Brother Andre averred that he possessed no ability to heal, “I have no such power, so I can’t pass it on.” His solution was always the same: make a novena to Saint Joseph, rub a bit with the oil or a medal of Saint Joseph. As he said, “These too are acts of love and faith, of confidence and humility.”
He usually encouraged people to see a doctor for treatment. At the same time he told doctors, “Your skills are awesome. Your knowledge is a gift from God. Show your gratitude prayerfully.”
Brother Andre knew how to speak of God’s love so appealingly that he planted a seed of hope within everyone he met. One of his friends recounted, “I never brought a sick person to him, without that person somehow feeling better. Some were healed. Others eventually died. But Brother Andre always managed to lift their spirits.”
The way to heaven
For Brother Andre, heaven simply meant living in God’s house. “You know it’s alright to wish for death as long as what you really want is to go to God…. When I die, I’ll live in heaven, so I’ll be much closer to God than now, and I’ll be able to help you even more.”
Shortly before his death, he revealed his own suffering, “Dear God, the pain….” Then he whispered “Here is the grain,” referring to the gospel passage, “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain, but if it does die, then it yields a great harvest.” (John 12:24)
“He spent his whole life talking to others about God and to God about others.” This testimony from one of his friends sums up a life imbued with faith and love. With Brother Andre it is difficult to observe where work began and prayer left off. Both seem blended in the same flow.
He died January 6, 1937 at the age of 91. Newspapers reported that over a million people filed past his coffin and followed the funeral rites. Today, his remains lie in a plain tomb within his beloved shrine which towers over the slopes of Mount Royal.
A down-to-earth person, someone like us, Brother Andre was alert to the signs of the times; he was a guide for the spirit. He remains for us a valuable symbol of that renewal to which Christ invites us all. Brother Andre was able to thrive under God’s grace; we too can thrive under that same grace.
|Pray with Saint Brother André at the Saint Joseph's Oratory, click here|
|Dates and locations of Saint brother André's Reliquary|
|Pray with Saint brother Andre at the Oratory - Booklet (PDF), click here|
|Dubuc, Jean-Guy, Brother André, Montréal, Fides, 1999|
|Dubuc, Jean-Guy, Brother André. Friend of the Suffering. A Apostle of Saint Joseph, Indiana [Notre Dame], Ave Maria Press, 2010, 234 p.|
|Boucher, Laurent, Brother André: The Miracle Man of Mount Royal, Montréal, 1997, 329 p.|
|Lafrenière, Bernard, Brother André. According the Witnesses, Montréal, Saint Joseph's Oratory, 1997, 212 p.|
|Film - DVD|
|« Brother André » Jean-Claude Labrecque, Les Production de la Montagne, 1985|
|« Frère André aujourd'hui / Brother André still with us », Le Centre Saint-Pierre - Convergence audiovidéo et l'Oratoire Saint-Joseph, 2004, 62 minutes.|
The Miracle on Mount Royal: 100 years of St.Joseph's
|Canadian Museum of Civilization
Face to Face. Exposition
|The Canadian Encyclopedia
|Dictionnary of Canadian Biography Online