By CAROLE BRESLIN
High on Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec, stands the largest Catholic church in Canada, the Basilica of St. Joseph’s Oratory. As the pilgrims climb the steps through the lovely grounds and statuary, they can turn and see the city of Montreal spread out below. Once inside they can visit the main statue of St. Joseph, surrounded by hundreds of votive candles. This magnificent church had very humble beginnings — a vision of a sick and frail man who could not seem to keep any job to support himself.
On August 9, 1845, in the small village of Mont-Saint-Grégoire, 25 miles southeast of Quebec, a child was born. Isaac Bessette, a carpenter, and his wife, Clothilde Foisy, a homemaker, welcomed the eighth of their twelve children, Alfred. From birth the boy was frail and sickly. He and his siblings were educated at home by Clothilde.
When Alfred was almost eight years old, the family moved to Farnham so Isaac could find employment as a lumberjack. Before Alfred’s ninth birthday, Isaac was killed when a tree fell on him and crushed him to death. Clothilde did her best to provide for the family, but she soon succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving the children orphans.
This loss caused the children to be separated and Alfred felt the loss keenly. He once told a friend, “I rarely prayed for my mother, but I often prayed to her.” She died when Alfred was only 12 years old, forcing him to leave school just two years later to try and support himself.
Because his education was cut short, he had difficulty reading and writing, which limited his employment possibilities. Thus began 13 years of wandering from one place to another — never remaining long at any establishment since he was “unsuitable.”
Nevertheless, with unwavering hope and valiant effort, he continued seeking employment, resulting in the same outcome as he was bullied by the more experienced and stronger workers. He tried work as an unskilled laborer, construction worker, farm boy, tinsmith, blacksmith, baker, cobbler, and coachman.
As the textile industry in the United States expanded, Alfred went there to find employment. Once again, he was determined to give his best despite his ailments. “Despite my weak condition, I did not let anyone get ahead of me,” he later said. Alfred continued to work there until Canada became a nation in 1867 and he returned to Quebec.
In 1870 he applied to the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal as a novice. Once again his frail health caused concern to the superiors of the order, but after considerable deliberation, Alfred was accepted and given the name Brother André.
Brother André was given the lowliest chores, such as washing the floors and windows, running errands, cleaning the lamps, bringing in wood for the fires, and acting as porter. He lovingly accepted this post and did his best to do it well. As he wrote years later, “My superiors showed me the door, and I remained there for forty years without leaving.”
With great compassion, he accepted the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden, as he invited them to pray to St. Joseph for the cures and the help they sought.
Sometimes he would sit in the tramway across the street from the college in order to be available to more people — the members of the order had complained of the many people coming to see Brother André. He frequently gave haircuts to the students and used these meager funds to build a wee chapel in honor of St. Joseph after discerning that God wanted one built on Mount Royal for all to see.
The doctors could offer no explanation for the miraculous cures Brother André brought about. More and more people sought his help, knowing he was a man of compassion, wisdom, and sympathy for their ailments. After his long day as the porter, he then would visit the shut-ins and help them as well.
As people began to praise him for so many wondrous deeds, he referred them all back to God: “I am only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.”
Brother André was calm and serene with eyes alight with the fire of God’s love. Although reserved with newcomers, he demonstrated much joy and a quick wit with those for whom he cared. By those means, he hoped to not only spread the good news, but also give advice in a friendly way.
His vision of the chapel materialized in 1904 with the shed on the hill. This was enlarged in 1908 and again in 1910 and by the time each of the additions was completed, even more room was needed. More and more pilgrims came to the Oratory of St. Joseph to see the “Miracle Man of Montreal.” Knowing this fame was misplaced, Brother André would go into seclusion on important feast days.
Finally in 1917, a much larger building was begun, but with the advent of the Great Depression, the construction was halted. As frost and the elements threatened to destroy what had been built, a meeting was called and Brother André was questioned. His response was, “This is not my work. It is the work of St. Joseph. Put one of his statues in the middle of the building. If he wants a roof over his head, he will take care of it.” Two months later they had the funds.
Like most saints, Brother André placed a high priority on saving souls. Though thousands came to visit him, and he worked at night with the homebound, he was criticized for “gallivanting around.” Little did they know at what cost Brother André cared for these people.
Although he was happy to help with their temporal needs, he was saddened as he observed, “It is surprising that I am frequently asked for cures, but rarely for humility and the spirit of faith. Yet they are so important.” Another time he said, “People who suffer have something to offer to God. When they succeed in enduring their suffering that is a daily miracle.”
As Brother André neared death, he encouraged others by saying, “You know, it is permitted to desire death if one’s unique goal is to go toward God. When I die, I will go to Heaven, I will be much closer to God than I am now; I will have more power to help you.
When Brother André died on January 6, 1937 at the age of 91, one million people passed by his coffin. Below the basilica his body lies under the oratory’s main chapel. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 17, 2010. His feast in the United States is celebrated on January 6 and in Canada on January 7.
Dear Brother André, heal our wounded souls so downtrodden by so many divisions in our families, our country, and the Church. Help us to seek always, with humility and a deep faith, through the intercession of St. Joseph, the grace to reach our eternal reward. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)