PATRICK P ROWAN recalls the life and times of Canadian Brother Andre, canonised by our current Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI in 2010
He was a poor boy in a large family, who received very little education and, later, he became a lay brother in the Congregation of the Holy Cross. During his lifetime, he was credited with thousands of miraculous cures and after he died one million people attended his obsequies. Then in 2010, he was canonised. In religious context, he was known as Brother Andre.
Andre was born Alfred Bessette, in a small town twenty-five miles South of Montreal, Quebec, on 9 August, 1845. He was the ninth of thirteen children, some of whom had died in infancy. He was so frail at birth that he was given immediate conditional baptism. The family was very poor. His father was a carpenter, but employment opportunities were very rare, so the family moved to another part of Quebec where the father worked as a lumberman. Five years later a tree fell on him, killing him, so Alfred’s mother was left at the age of forty to look after ten children. Three years later she died of tuberculosis and young Alfred was left an orphan. He was so impressed with the sacrifices his mother made that, later in life, he used to say, “I rarely pray for my mother but I often pray to her.”
Alfred now had no option but to leave school and look for work. Because of his lack of education, he spent the next eighteen years doing the most menial work in Canada and the United States.
Although he was not aware of it, he was being observed by the local parish priest, Fr. Andre Provencal, who was very impressed by Alfred’s genuine piety. He suggested that the young man apply to be admitted as a Brother in the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal. The priest’s letter to the superior stated, 'I am sending you a saint' although he could not have realised how prophetic his words proved to be.
In 1872, Alfred entered the noviciate and was given the name Andre by which he would be known for the rest of his life. He was appointed as a porter at Notre Dame College and was to remark many years later, “When I joined the community the superiors showed me the door and I remained there for the next forty years. “ He also acted as a general factotum in the college. He made his final vows on February 2, 1874 at the age of twenty-eight.
Soon after Andre had taken up the position of porter at Notre Dame College people began to confide in him and found that the cheerful Brother was very pleased to listen to accounts of their worries. Then, many claimed that relations had been cured because of Andre’s prayers and he became known for his empathy with the sick and the broken-hearted. The crowds seeking to speak to him became so great that his superiors became concerned and gave him a place across the road from the college to meet with his visitors. Parents in the school complained that his visitors might bring some communicable disease into the school and even the doctors complained that Andre appeared to have curative powers that he was not qualified to have.
Soon Andre was spending six to eight hours daily with the visitors and then called on people at their homes at night. He had an intense devotion to St Joseph and when he heard people say he could perform miracles he was quick to reply. “People are silly to think I can perform miracles. It is God and St Joseph who can heal you, not I.” As with Saint Pio, there were some who maintained that he could not be genuine in his actions, yet his fame spread. At one stage, he was receiving eighty thousand letters every year and had to have four secretaries to deal with his correspondence.
Andre would take oil from the lamp in the college chapel to rub on the sick and tell them to pray to St Joseph. Sometimes he would instruct sick supplicants to go to confession and receive Holy Communion first and then return to him.
The abiding passion of Brother Andre was to promote devotion to St Joseph. To honour this saint he had a small wooden oratory built in 1904. Not too long after it became obvious that the building was too small. It was extended in 1908 and again a few years later. Then, in 1924, work began on a basilica called St Joseph’s Oratory on Westmount Summit, Montreal, but it was not until 1967 that the work was completed. “God chose the most ignorant for this task.” Andre was fond of saying this when people wondered why he had taken on such an endeavour.
The basilica is the largest in the world dedicated to St Joseph and can accommodate up to ten thousand people. Over two million visit it every year and, in 2004, on the centenary anniversary of the erection of the first oratory, it was designated a National Historic Site.
Brother Andre died in 1937. Although he had been a very sickly child he lived to the age of ninety-one. It was estimated at the time that a million people filed past his coffin, such was the esteem of the Canadian people for the humble brother. He was interred in the church that he helped build. His body lies in a tomb built below the oratory’s main chapel, but his heart is preserved in a reliquary in the building. He had requested that his heart be kept in the Oratory as a protection for the building, but in 1973, his heart was stolen. It was recovered the following year.
Brother Andre was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 23, 1982. The miracle cited in support of his beatification was the healing of Guiseppe Carlo Audino, who suffered from cancer. Then, on 19 December, 2009, Pope Benedict decreed that a second miracle was recognised due to Blessed Andre’s intercession, so on 17 October, 2010, Pope Benedict declared him a saint.