In our culture, people who have good looks, athleticism, intelligence or a big paycheck are highly valued.
Brother André Bessette’s Oct. 17 canonization is a profound reminder to our often-superficial world that God often chooses the weak to accomplish great things.
Before he became the beloved Brother André, he was known as Alfred Bessette. Born on Aug. 9, 1845, to Isaac and Clothilde Bessette in Mont-Saint-Grégoire, Quebec, he was so tiny and sickly that his parents feared he would not survive. They baptized Alfred and placed him in a makeshift incubator — a warm oven.
Though his health continued to ail, Alfred’s parents showered him with love and the little boy lived. However, he would not have their love and protection for long. When Alfred was 10, his father died in a woodcutting accident. Two years later, his mother died of tuberculosis. He and his siblings were split up among their relatives.
Most of Alfred’s schooling was done informally by his mother; after her death he would go to work on his relative’s farm. In the mid-19th century, there was much poverty in Canada’s rural areas, so every able hand was needed to survive. As he matured, he tried his luck at numerous menial jobs, but struggled because of debilitating digestive problems and lack of education.
Jean-Guy Dubuc, author of “Brother André: Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of St. Joseph” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95), wrote in his biography about the saint’s occupational struggles:
“His driving strength was his will to live. ... Already at this stage in his life, he harbored a deep faith in God. … His faith was inseparable from an intense love of life, which gave him the strength to conquer all obstacles despite his limited means. He was driven by the deep conviction that he could do something to change things.”
In 1863, during the Industrial Revolution, Alfred sought millwork in the United States. Four years later he returned to Canada, moving to the French-Canadian village of Saint-Césaire. Here, Father André Provencal noticed Alfred’s exceptional piety, and, despite the young man’s lack of education necessary for the religious life, he recommended him to the Congregation of Holy Cross, at Notre-Dame College in Montreal, saying, “I’m sending you a saint,” according to Dubuc’s book.
Becoming Brother André
A novitiate, 25-year-old Alfred donned the black cassock and black cord tied about the waist and chose the name André. A year later he was told that he would not be allowed to take his temporary vows because of his poor health. However, Brother André was determined; when the bishop of Montreal, Bishop Ignace Bourget, came for an official visit, Brother André went over the heads of his superiors and beseeched the bishop to let him join. At the age of 28 he professed his perpetual vows.
Brother André’s job was to be the porter at Notre-Dame College, greeting and directing people to their destinations — a duty he would have for 40 years. Being the doorkeeper was not his only task; he also acted as nurse, cloakroom attendant, janitor and school barber. Brother André once said that he never refused any work that was asked of him.
The brother was assigned another job — this time by God — of healing infirmities of body and of soul; much to the amazement — and sometimes animosity — of his brethren. He never took credit for any of the numerous healings, but adamantly said the miracles came from St. Joseph, who healed through God’s power. By 1890, crowds of people were coming to see the man everyone thought was a saint.
Devoted to St. Joseph
People who knew Brother André said that he couldn’t have a conversation without mentioning St. Joseph. “Brother André prayed with people [who came to him] for the intercession of St. Joseph, especially for healing,” Holy Cross Father Kevin Grove, associate pastor of Christ the King Parish in South Bend, Ind., told OSV. “St. Joseph, a saint whose fidelity to the instruction of God blessed the childhood of our Lord Jesus, was a model of faithfulness and prayer for Brother André.”
Brother Andre said that while perched upon his mother’s knee, she taught him to love St. Joseph.
“For Brother André, St. Joseph could obtain anything from his Son. All that was needed was to ask him!” writes Dubuc.
Brother André gave a St. Joseph medal to almost everyone he met. He often suggested to the sick that they rub “St. Joseph’s oil” (oil burnt in front of St. Joseph’s statue) where they hurt. One of many amazing stories of healing through St. Joseph’s oil occurred in 1925. A young mechanic had molten lead explode in his face. Fearing he would be blind, he sought Brother André’s help. The brother told him to attend Mass, to receive holy Communion in honor of St. Joseph, to take his medication, but to add a drop of St. Joseph’s oil to it, and make the invocation: “St. Joseph, pray for us.” The young man said that the same evening that he did all that Brother André asked of him, the scars on his face were peeled away like sheets of cellophane to reveal an unmarked face.
St. Joseph’s Oratory
Brother André had a dream to build an oratory dedicated to St. Joseph on the slopes of Mount Royal, facing the college. At first his superiors denied him his request, but with characteristic persistence, he won his wish. Though his order did not give him a penny to build the chapel, he was able to see it accomplished through friends that he had healed and private donations. The first chapel was simply built, and held only 10 people.
It quickly became apparent that the chapel was not large enough to accommodate the faithful, so in 1908 a larger one was built. Its capacity was for 100 people, but 700 people showed up on its inauguration day. Finally, in 1914, the bishop authorized a basilica to St. Joseph — St. Joseph’s Oratory — to be built on the mountain. Brother André saw his humble vision of a devotional chapel turn into the largest chapel in the world devoted to St. Joseph. Today, some 2 million pilgrims a year visit St. Joseph’s Oratory.
Holy Cross Father André Leveille, chaplain of Holy Cross Village, an independent living community in Notre Dame, Ind., used to work summers at St. Joseph’s Oratory when he was a Holy Cross brother. During this time, he heard a firsthand account of Brother André from the saint’s superior, Father Emile Deguire.
“Brother André must have had a tremendous attraction to people, because people liked to be with him. His holiness was evident. Miracles occurred,” Father Leveille told Our Sunday Visitor. “You go to the St. Joseph’s shrine and, my goodness, you see stacks and stacks of crutches and things people left behind.”
“Brother André was the working man’s hero. He was not a great scholar or a great preacher; he could read, but not very well; he could sign his name. He was very much like St. Joseph, who never says anything in the Gospels.”
Brother André died in 1937 on a bitterly cold day in January; over a week’s time, a million people from all over the world came and stood in line to get one last glimpse or to touch the saint. This diminutive man, who was not supposed to have lived or amount to anything, accomplished miracles and fulfilled God’s work.
“Brother André’s simple tomb, now a place of prayer for millions of pilgrims, has only this inscription: ‘A Poor and Humble Servant.’ Marked by faithfulness and humility, Brother André is a witness and inspiration to all,” Father Grove told OSV.
Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Idaho. For more information on Brother Andre and St. Joseph’s Oratory, visit www.saint-joseph.org.
Brother André's Words of Wisdom (sidebar)
Brother André Bessette was a man of few, but wise, words; all that he said throughout his 91 years is contained in a book consisting of 70 pages. “He listened; he did not speak,” says his biographer, Jean-Guy Dubuc. Here are some of his sayings according to Dubuc’s book, “Brother André”:
“People are worried for nothing. When help is needed, it will come in time at the right place by God.”
“The slightest earthly suffering is rewarded a thousand times over in heaven. If people only realized this, they would fall to their knees and ask to be tried.”
“Pray to St. Joseph. He’ll never leave you out in the cold.”
Brother Andre recommended this simple prayer to Jesus’ foster father: “St. Joseph, pray for me as you yourself would have prayed, had you been here on earth in my shoes with my trouble. St. Joseph, answer our prayers…”
Half-Dozen New Saints (sidebar)
Brother Andre Bessette and Mother Mary MacKillop, who will be canonized Oct. 17 along with four others, remained obedient to God’s will despite obstacles
Brother André Bessette and Mother Mary MacKillop are two high-profile soon-to-be saints, but Pope Benedict XVI will canonize four other holy men and women on Oct 17 as well. Here is a short look at the others who will be made saints that day:
- Blessed Stanislaw Soltys Kazimierczyk, a Polish-born member of the Canons Regular of the Lateran, who lived 1433-1489. He was famous as a preacher and confessor.
- Blessed Juana Josefa Cipitria Barriola of Spain. The nun, who died in 1912, founded the Daughters of Jesus.
- Blessed Giulia Salzano, the Italian founder of the Catechetical Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; she died in 1929.
- Blessed Camilla Battista Varano, an Italian Poor Clare who lived 1458-1524.
Youthful Example of Holiness (sidebar)
As six holy people are elevated to saints this weekend, an Italian teenager known for her holiness is one step behind them.
Chiara “Luce” Badano, who was 19 when she died in 1990, was beatified Sept. 25 by Archbishop Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes. Thousands of young members of the Focolare Movement, a lay group focused on the spirituality of unity, were among the 25,000 gathered in Rome for the beatification, which took place at the Shrine of Divine Love, and for a nighttime celebration of Blessed Badano’s life at the Pope VI Audience Hall at the Vatican. It was the first beatification of a member of the movement.
Blessed Badano is known for her vibrant faith, even as she was undergoing painful treatment for the bone cancer that claimed her life.
“At the beginning we all thought that we were going there to support her. But we soon realized that she was actually supporting us. It was as if we were drawn by a magnet. Every time we went into her room, we had to be ‘in tune’ with her; and those brief moments spent with her filled us with joy,” a friend recalled. “We felt we were being launched, through no merit of our own, into her luminous adventure of love with God. And yet Chiara did not come out with any extraordinary words, she didn’t write pages and pages in her diary. She just loved.”
At his Sept. 26 Angelus address, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged young people to follow her “example of Christian consistency,” saying that she showed that “only Love with a capital L gives true happiness.”