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"I Am Sending You a Saint"
A Reflection on St. André of Montreal
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
Brother André Bessette, of the Congregation of Holy Cross was born Alfred Bessette into a large Catholic family in 1845 in the Quebec village of Saint-Grégoire d'Iberville, the baby was so frail as a newborn that his father, Isaac, didn’t expect him to live for more than a day.
The Bessette family was besieged with tragedies. In 1855, when Alfred was 10 years old, his father died in a logging accident. In order to provide for her children, Alfred’s mother was forced to separate them from each other and sent them to live with various members of their extended family. Only Alfred was able to stay with his mother due to his own delicate health. Two years later Madame Bessette died of tuberculosis.
After Alfred was orphaned, he lived with his aunt's family. He was frequently sick as a young boy and rarely attended school. At age 10 he began suffering from painful stomach problems that would stay with him throughout his life. He tried various jobs before turning 18 years old. He then set out for the United States where he followed the path of many French-Canadians before him. Alfred moved from one job to another, laboring on farms, in factories and in textile mills in New England. Throughout his four years in the United States, Alfred remained frail and sickly, searching for his real vocation.
In 1867, Alfred returned to Canada, taking up various jobs before finally settling in Sainte-Césaire, the village where, after his mother’s death, he had made his first holy Communion. He began helping Father André Provençal, the local pastor, with chores around the church. He was also spending more and more time in prayer, particularly before the statue of St. Joseph in the parish church. Father Provençal realized that Alfred’s interior prayer was genuine and authentic. In 1870, convinced that his young parishioner was surely being called by God, the kind and perceptive priest asked Alfred to consider religious life within the Congregation of Holy Cross. Despite misgivings over his worthiness and suitability, Alfred reluctantly agreed to allow his pastor to present him to Holy Cross for further formal discernment in their formation program. Alfred was 25 years old. Father Provençal wrote to the superiors of the Congregation of Holy Cross:
“I am sending you a saint.”
Unfortunately Alfred’s frail health soon proved an obstacle for the Holy Cross authorities, who were evaluating his call to vows within the Congregation. Toward the end of his novitiate year, Alfred applied for temporary vows. His religious superiors decided they could not accept him knowing that his poor health would be an impediment to his perpetual profession of the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Alfred was devastated.
A few weeks after that fateful decision, the Bishop of Montreal, Ignace Bourget, visited College Notre-Dame, which was also the location of the novitiate community. Alfred sought out the Bishop and begged him to intercede with the Holy Cross superiors, saying “My only ambition is to serve God in the most humble tasks.” The Bishop was deeply moved by his plea. The superiors relented and admitted Alfred to vows as a consecrated brother of Holy Cross. On Feb. 2, 1874, Bessette's religious name, André, was conferred on him by his superiors. Alfred had chosen the name in honor of his parish priest who sent him to Holy Cross. The Superior of Novices, upon accepting Brother André as a lay brother, wrote: "If this young man becomes incapable of working, at least he will know how to pray very well."
Most members of the Congregation of Holy Cross were priests or teachers. Lay brothers contributed to the work of the order by performing the manual labor necessary to keep the school running. For nearly 40 years Brother André worked as a porter at the College of Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Coeur in the Montreal neighborhood of Côtes-des-Neiges. Speaking about his assignment as doorman, he once quipped, "When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door."
As porter of the College, Brother André lived in a small room located near the main entrance that also served as his office. He was also occupied with many menial tasks such as washing the floors and windows, cleaning lamps, and bringing in the firewood. Every day he rang the wake-up bell, cleaned rooms, picked up mail at the post office and, weekly, couriered laundry to and from resident pupils' houses. Another task that must have given him the opportunity for wonderful conversations was his role as barber for the students.
Brother André urged people who came to him to pray with confidence and perseverance, while remaining open to God’s will. He admonished people to begin their path to healing through commitments to faith and humility, through confession and a return to the sacraments. He encouraged the sick to seek a doctor’s care. He saw value in suffering that is joined to the sufferings of Christ. He allowed himself to be fully present to the sadness of others but always retained a joyful nature and good humor. At times he was seen weeping along with his visitors as they recounted to him their sorrows and difficulties. Word spread quickly when many of those with whom he prayed were healed. As Brother André was becoming known as a miracle worker, he insisted all the more, "I am nothing ... only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph."
As the tensions increased at the College with so many of the sick coming to see the porter, the school officials decided that Brother André could no longer continue with his ministry. He was permitted to receive the sick in the nearby tramway station rather than the College. As his reputation spread, Brother André became quite a controversial figure. There were many religious in the Congregation of Holy Cross, teachers and parents of students at the College who supported him but many others opposed him and even considered him dangerous to the well-being of the school’s reputation because they regarded him as a charlatan. Others were concerned for the good health of the children, fearing the possibility of contagion in the school spread from diseases carried by the sick who frequented Brother André.
Brother André always had a strong devotion to St. Joseph, and in 1900 he received permission to raise money for a shrine to St. Joseph. The first shelter was constructed in 1904. Holy Cross authorities allowed for a room to be added to the Chapel and Brother André was assigned to live in that room where he could readily receive pilgrims and pray for them. He abandoned the tramway station and began receiving pilgrims at the Chapel of St. Joseph that would become the Oratory.
In 1909 Brother André was assigned full-time as the caretaker of the Oratory. He spent his days seeing sick people who came to him, and spent his evenings visiting the sick who could not make it to the Oratory. Construction on what would become known as St. Joseph’s Oratory began in 1914. A crypt church seating 1,000 was completed in 1917. By the 1920s the Oratory hosted over 1 million pilgrims annually, and hundreds of cures were attributed to his prayers every year.
Brother André died in Montreal on Jan. 6, 1937, without seeing the completion of his dream. It is estimated that over a million people visited his body during the week following his death. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 23, 1982, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On Oct. 17, 2010, Brother André Bessette will be canonized, becoming the first male Canadian-born saint.
The miracle leading to his canonization occurred in 1999 when a 9-year-old boy had been the victim of an automobile accident, leaving him with a serious cranial injury and putting him in an irreversible coma leading toward death. The prayers of the people closest to him, along with the intercession of Brother André, brought him back to consciousness and health, and this was deemed scientifically unexplainable by medical experts.
“Pauper, servus et umilis”
Through Brother André’s efforts, suffering and faith, from a little chapel on a hillside of Mount Royal came forth a great Basilica that now dominates Montreal’s mountain and Canada’s spiritual landscape. St. Joseph’s Oratory is the world’s largest shrine dedicated to St. Joseph, built from a dream of Brother André Bessette. In this frail Brother of Holy Cross, God’s strength and might were revealed to the world. “Pauper, servus et umilis” are the Latin words written above his tomb at the Oratory in Montreal, meaning poor, servant and humble. They are also the words that are sung in the Panis Angelicus, the magnificent hymn about the Eucharist: poor, servant and humble. Who can say why was André chosen? In a beautiful circular letter to the Holy Cross family earlier this year, former Holy Cross Superior General Father Hugh Cleary wrote: “…perhaps André was chosen, like Mary and Joseph, because in the eyes of this world he was no one; he possessed nothing, nothing possessed him. … God possessed him giving him what he cared for most, giving him fulfillment to the deepest longing of his heart.”
Vocation of a Religious Lay Brother
In his 1996 Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II stated: “Consecrated persons are asked to be true experts of communion and to practice its spirituality as witnesses and artisans of that plan of communion which stands at the center of history according to God” (VC 46).
Religious brothers offer invaluable service to God’s people, though theirs is one that is lesser known in our Church. There is also an overwhelming sense that religious brothers are our peers, living and working in our midst as companions on our journey of faith. They are men who are examples of how the actions of our daily lives can in themselves be holy.
Brother André Bessette was a true expert and artisan of communion who lived and worked in our midst and was companion to so many people on their journey of faith. His vocation as a religious lay brother was a gracious and mysterious gift of God. His witnessing was prophetic, radical, visible, effective, credible and joyful. As an adult, Brother André stood just five feet tall. But he was a giant of faith and spirituality, whose shadow still hovers mightily over Montreal and Canada. He shows us what can be achieved through faith and love. In the humble porter’s own words, “It is with the smallest brushes that the artists paint the most beautiful pictures.”
Opening the doors of our hearts and Church
Christ is the door to the Father, who knocks at the doors of our hearts, our homes and our Church. The Church, and especially St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, is the door to salvation, the portal of the Kingdom of God. Brother André was the porter of that blessed place. The Lord worked through his doubts, infirmities, strengths, perseverance and human ingenuity to build a Church and build up the Church.
Each day we enter and leave by so many doors without ever noticing. We all remember the stories of the days of our grandparents when "no one locked their doors." We now live in an age of deadbolts and alarm systems. Gone are the days we once knew when the doors of our homes would open regularly and easily to relatives, friends and neighbors. The doors of our homes and churches don't seem to swing open quite so easily or as often as they used to. We must find ways to open the doors of our homes, our hearts and our churches to all who need us.
In his day, Brother André was Montreal’s Porter and he is now one of Heaven’s special gatekeepers. He teaches us the importance of greeting each person as the Lord, himself. Some will come to our doors rejoicing, and others in fear; some will come healed and others to seek that healing. St. André teaches us to be sensitive and welcoming to all who knock on our doors. May he continue to inspire us to open doors and build bridges to the people whom the Lord sends us each day, especially those who are sick, broken, poor and lonely. May St. André of Montreal make us instruments of healing, friendship, joy and peace in our day.
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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.