[This article was formerly titled "Blessed Brother André of Saint Joseph." With the canonization of Frere André on October 17, 2010, we have changed the name to something more fitting. The author is grateful that he had the grace to be present in St. Peter's Square when the Holy Father solemnly declared his patron a saint.]
In the city of Montreal, Province of Quebec, Canada, on a rise of earth known as Mount Royal, there stands a religious edifice of staggering proportions. It is three hundred and sixty-one feet high, taller than either Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Its girth is so massive that it could hold within itself any one of most of the world’s great shrines, including Saint Anne de Beaupré and Saint Paul of London. The cross atop its domed roof can be seen for miles around, guiding the millions of pilgrims who come there each year. It is the Oratory of Saint Joseph, a worthy tribute to him who is the head of the Holy Family and the Patron of the Universal Church.
If one were to ask any Canadian for the name of the person who built this magnificent House of God, he would be told, “Brother André.” Yet, this little lay brother’s name does not appear on any of the official records of the building of the Oratory. He was only a porter — a doorman — at a college owned and operated by his religious congregation. He was a little man, both in size and, if one were to judge by appearance, in importance. He was not a priest; therefore he could neither offer Mass nor preach. Because of poor education, he did not know how to read or write until he reached the age of twenty-five.
How is it, then, that this little brother is known and venerated all over the world as the little saint who built the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal? It is our privilege within the following pages to provide you an answer to that question.
The Early Years.
On August 9, 1845, Alfred Bessette was born to Isaac and Clothilde Bessette, the eighth in what would become a family of twelve children. The Bessettes were a poor French Canadian family who lived in the farming village of St. Gregoire, thirty miles from Montreal, and about the same distance from the border of the United States. Isaac and Clothilde were devout Catholics who, by their own example, taught their children the virtuous habits of prayer and hard work, habits which were to become for little Alfred the key to his ultimate sanctity as Brother André.
Alfred was born a very sick baby; so sick, in fact, that his father baptized him shortly after birth, fearing he would not survive. This lack of physical health and strength stayed with him throughout his entire life, yet he lived to the incredible age of ninety-one.
Recalling what he could of those early years, Brother André later told of how happy they were for him, of how great was his love for his parents, especially his mother, who had special affection for her frail child. But that happiness was soon tempered by tragedy. When he was six years old, his father was killed in a lumbering accident near the town of Farnham. Four years later, his mother, trying to raise twelve children single-handedly, contracted tuberculosis and was forced to put the children up for adoption. Keeping with her only the feeblest one, Alfred, she went to live with her sister, Mrs. Timothée Nadeau, in St. Cesaire. Two years later, in 1857, she died. Brother André later recalled, with great love and affection, her last days. Knowing her end was near, she summoned her children to her bedside and addressed them sweetly:
“My dear little ones, it has been six years since your papa left us to go to Heaven. The good God is coming to look for me in my turn. Pray for me. Do not forget the tomb of your father. My body will repose beside his in the cemetery at Farnham. From the height of Heaven I will watch over you.”
These parting words from his devout mother left a lasting impression on the frail youth. Years later, he would say of her, “I rarely pray for her, but very often I pray to her.”
Alfred was but twelve years old when his mother died. He was now an orphan, separated from his brothers and sisters. But the next ten years of his life would see the accelerated formation of a saint.
After the death of his mother, he remained with the Nadeau family. Timothée put him to work on the family farm, but, try as he may, little Alfred could not cope with strenuous farm labor. He simply did not have the physical stamina required to perform the chores asked of him. Then his uncle sent him to a cobbler to learn the shoemaking trade, but this didn’t work either. The poor lad was so clumsy that he was constantly pricking his fingers with the sharp cobbler’s awl. This scenario was repeated over and over again: He would take a job and work at it as hard as he could, but always his poor health made it impossible for him to continue. Here are Brother André’s own words describing these years of his life:
“I was never very strong. From the time when I was a little boy, ten years old, I have suffered from dyspepsia [indigestion]. It seems as if I was always sick from it. I have had it all during my life, and it still annoys me.
“When I was living with my uncle and was very young, I could not go to school much because I was always sick. Once I tried to become a shoemaker, but I could not stand bending over and being inside the place so much, and my health made me give it up. Then, after a little while, when I thought I was strong enough, I tried to become a baker, but again I found that my health would not let me do inside work. It seems that I was never very strong.”
So much for the physical deficiencies of little Alfred Bessette. Now let us tell of the one great strength which made this peasant weakling such an exceptional boy — his astonishing holiness.
Father André Provençal
During the canonical proceedings for his cause, Father Henri Bergeron, C.S.C., related a comment made to him by Brother André’s sister: “Ah, if you only knew my brother in his youth! On Sunday he passed the greater part of the afternoon in the church.”
We should not quickly pass over this statement without reflection. Sunday was probably the only day of the week on which the boy had no assigned chores. It was most likely the only time he had to play with other children in the village, but Alfred chose to stay in prayer for “the greater part of the afternoon.” This is truly heroic in a child.
It was during this time that he came into contact with the priest who proved to be the worthy spiritual tutor of a saint, Father André Provençal, the Curé of Saint Césaire. It was Father Provençal who instructed little Alfred for his first Holy Communion. It was Father Provençal who inspired devotion to Saint Joseph. And it was also this holy parish priest who put Brother André on that road which, for him, would end in perfection — the road to a religious vocation.
Even in his youth, Brother André practiced severe penances. His aunt, Madame Nadeau, several times had to take away instruments of mortification from the boy. A leather belt pierced with tacks and worn around the waist, an iron chain, and sleeping on the floor were all penances that his poor aunt had to forbid for fear of his health. Little Alfred never disobeyed; when he was told not to practice one penance, he simply adopted another. Some may think these penances were just childish excess which would fade away with maturity, but they continued throughout his lifetime, making him a truly mortified religious.
Penance is nothing without prayer, though. And here was the true sign of the lad’s holiness: He relished being united with God in prayer. His spare time was spent either in the presbytery of the parish, talking to Father Provençal, or in the church itself in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, absorbed in prayer for hours at a time. It was during these years that he started what was to be his lifelong habit — long, deep conversations with Saint Joseph. In his Epistle to the Philippians (3:20), Saint Paul said, “Our conversation is in Heaven.” For our little French Canadian pauper, these words were not a pious platitude, but a beautiful reality.
To the U.S. and Back
About the year 1863, when he was eighteen years old, he emigrated to the United States, thinking that the milder climate of New England and the opportunities for better employment would benefit his frail health. He settled in Connecticut and worked in various towns including Hartford, alternating higher paying, but more strenuous, factory labor with less difficult, lower paying, farm work. Not much is known about this period except that his vagabond existence never changed; it seemed he would always be a wanderer.
Many years later, Brother André related an incident from his laboring years: One day, while working in a field, he stopped momentarily to rest. As he leaned on his rake for support, he asked Saint Joseph where he would die. At that moment, he had not exactly a vision, but a vivid daydream in which he saw a large stone building with a cross on top. He had never seen this building before, but received a definite mental impression of its size, proportion, color and windows, all of which suggested a barracks. Years later, the vision was confirmed when he became the brother porter of that very building — the College of Notre Dame in Côte-des-Neiges.
Biographers have assumed that, since Brother André actually died in a hospital in Saint Laurent and not the College of Notre Dame, he misinterpreted his dream. But this is not so, for the word “death” can have many meanings, naturally as well as supernaturally. Just as in the case of the Old Testament Joseph, it was in the mystical sense that this dream was fulfilled. Alfred did die at the College of Notre Dame. When a priest stood over him and pronounced, “Alfred Bessette, henceforth thy name will be Brother André,” Alfred Bessette died, cloaked in the black pall of the religious habit, and Brother André, a religious of the of the Holy Cross Congregation was born.
We will discuss his religious vocation soon enough. For now, let us continue with his travels: After three years in the United States, the young wayfarer returned to his native country, still a vagabond and, by worldly standards, still a failure. But he came back weary of the world, for it had nothing to offer him but distractions from the things of God.
While in New England, his associates used to marvel at the fact that almost all of his spare time was spent in prayer. Little did they know that this was only the beginning, for Alfred wanted to give himself completely. Though as yet he had no plans for the religious life, he knew that he would have to take leave of worldly affairs to enter a greater union with his Beloved. It must have been a wondrous thing to see the pious young man begging for guidance, storming Heaven with petition after petition, and offering up his many trials and sufferings in an effort to discern what his true vocation was.
His prayers and supplications were answered. Not long after his return to Canada, Alfred went to see his spiritual Father with whom he had kept contact during his travels, Father Provençal. The same loving, paternal hand which guided Alfred to Saint Joseph while still a child, also brought him to his vocation. He didn’t have to take his little one far. Across the street from Father Provençal’s parish Church was a new building that had been built during the time Alfred was away from Saint Césaire. The building was a school where some eighty pupils were taught by six brothers, members of a fledgling religious congregation known as the Congregation of the Holy Cross. To fully appreciate the next phase of Brother André’s life, we must learn a little about this noble institution.
Congregation of the Holy Cross
The religious whom Alfred met were the spiritual children of two fathers.
In 1820, Father Jacques François Dujarie founded an association meant to provide sacristans and teachers for the parish priests of France. Such men were sorely needed, for the Masonic French Revolution had suppressed the religious orders in France, depriving the faithful of teachers and the parish priests of the assistance they needed from brothers and nuns. Many religious were martyred for the Faith during the Reign of Terror.
Father Dujarie was a parish priest in a village near Le Mans, France, and founded his association there. He called these men the Brothers of Saint Joseph. Fifteen years later, he put his brothers under the care of Canon Basile Moreau, who had just founded a group of priests called the Auxiliary Priests. Two years after that, in 1837, the Congregation of the Holy Cross was formed. In 1857, Venerable Pope Pius IX made Holy Cross an official Congregation of the Church.
Saint John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, said of the institute, “The Congregation of Holy Cross is destined after many trials, to perform great works.” Indeed the Congregation did perform many great works all over the world. Missionary work, teaching, and writing are all part of the Holy Cross apostolate. It is impossible to go to a theological library and not find several scholarly books written by Holy Cross priests and brothers. Many were great poets too. But they were best known for the Catholicity and academic excellence of their schools. In addition to countless high schools, the Congregation founded, and still operates, Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. We do not know just what the particular work is that the Curé of Ars was referring to, but it is not too unlikely a guess that he meant the great work of Brother André. For, though this Order has accomplished much (the early days in Indiana are replete with edifying stories of astounding zeal and piety), its only candidate for canonization to date is Brother André.
In 1847, a small group of religious was sent to Canada to open a foundation in the diocese of Montreal. The group was led by a Holy Cross priest and included six brothers and two nuns. They came at the request of the bishop of Montreal, Bishop Bourget, who went to France to ask Father Moreau for their assistance. These pioneer religious founded a college in Saint Laurent, in the diocese of Montreal.
Acceptance and Profession
Alfred’s meeting with these brothers was an event of singular importance. He was impressed by them; their black habit with Roman collar, cincture and medal of Saint Joseph, their manly bearing and devotion all attracted him. Nevertheless, he was nervous. These men were educated; they ran a school — just the six of them — with eighty children. Alfred was still an illiterate. But Father Provençal soon relieved him of that worry, assuring his young friend there was a need in the order for janitors and manual laborers. His fears allayed, Alfred soon came fully to desire the life which he saw before him in these six men.
On the brothers’ part, however, there was reservation. Could this frail little one actually live up to the great rigor of religious life? Could he take the formation that they had all been through? Was his apparent piety enough to overcome such deficiencies? These were real concerns for the brothers, though they did not express them to the lad. They simply answered the questions Alfred asked about their rule, their history, and their devotion to the Holy Patriarch, Saint Joseph. Without discouraging him, they said nothing to indicate any desire that he join them.
Alfred was not at all put off by the brothers’ lack of enthusiasm. As was already his common practice, he sought Divine Assistance to overcome this challenge and prayed all the more. Then, in 1870, he made up his mind that, if they would have him, he would join the Congregation. They accepted him into the novitiate in Côte-des-Neiges, and he took the habit of the order. The novice master, Father Gastineau, gave him a great welcome. Perhaps he was expecting much of the new arrival, because before Brother André got to the novitiate, the novice master received a letter from Father Provençal which said, “I am sending a saint to your Congregation.”
Brother André was a good novice, well liked by his superiors and respected by the brothers. During the novitiate he progressed in the spiritual life under his spiritual director, Father Hupier, and in the religious life under his novice master, Father Gastineau. He also learned to read, a skill which he applied with great fervor to the Holy Scriptures and the Imitation of Christ, as well as to the lives of the saints. As part of the Holy Cross religious formation, novices were required to memorize the entire Sermon on the Mount. But Brother André didn’t stop there. In later years, he memorized the Passion of Our Lord as it is contained in each of the four Gospels, being able to recite the entire Passion word for word according to whichever Evangelist he wished. In addition to this, he had whole sections of many spiritual books memorized.
As it would happen, one area of his life which did not improve during the novitiate was Brother André’s miserable health. It was so bad that he was not allowed to make his temporary vows as a Holy Cross brother. There was even talk of dismissing him from the community. Naturally, this upset the frail little servant of God, who wanted to work out his salvation as a religious. Desperate to save his vocation, he took advantage of a visit by Bishop Bourget, the bishop of Montreal, to the college. Overcoming his timidity, the novice knocked on the door of the prelate’s room and, once admitted inside, threw himself at the feet of his Excellency. In tears, he explained the situation. Towards the end of the conversation, the young brother humbly declared, “My only ambition is to serve God in the most obscure tasks.” The bishop, having heard all he needed, said, “Don’t be afraid, child. You will be admitted to the religious profession.” He was true to his word; Brother André made his profession on August 22, 1872.
Our Lady’s Porter
His first assignment was as porter of the College of Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Coeur in Côte-des-Neiges, the same college where he spent much of his novitiate. This was the position he held for nearly forty years. As is common in the lives of all of the saints — and, indeed, in the lives of all men — there was never a time when he was without crosses, some of them serious. His superior at the College, Father Louage, was not particularly impressed by Brother André and oftentimes disciplined him in what seemed to be an unfair manner. Because of this, Brother André was given the name “the lightning rod of the college” by the other religious, who said, “He receives the bolts of Father Louage.” In all of this, the pious religious persevered without the slightest protest, wishing to unite his sufferings to Christ’s instead of wasting them by complaining.
It was soon after his assignment at the college that those supernatural phenomena which marked the rest of his life started to happen.
God, knowing that men do not think often enough of their final end, nor of Him, nor of the truths of religion, gives human nature external signs of His presence and the truth of His religion. Our Lord Himself, when the disciples of Saint John the Baptist approached him, asking if He were the Messias, said, Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Culminating with His own miraculously prolonged passion and His glorious Resurrection, Our Lord gave ample proof of His Divinity. In addition to His own miracles, He promised His Apostles that signs would follow their preaching. He was true to this promise: But they going forth preached every where: the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed. (Mark 16:20) As is plain from Church History and the lives of the saints, the divine foundation of the Church was proved by miracles in every age.
Since Our Lord’s time, then, there have been sufficient — and oftentimes more than sufficient — extraordinary proofs for all to know the One True God and His One True Religion. And so, in this age of great intellectual pride, God manifests his mercy again to an unbelieving people to give them more than ample opportunity to save their souls.
As for Brother André, the public nature and frequency of the miracles he worked make them impossible to dispute. He cured many of the students at the college, so many that he developed a reputation as a great miracle worker.
One day, as the pious porter was scrubbing the floor in the parlor of the college, a lady came to see him, having heard of his reputation. She was so afflicted with rheumatism that she could only walk with the assistance of two men supporting her by holding each arm. Her request to Brother André was simple enough: “I am suffering from rheumatism. I want you to heal me.” Not looking up from the floor he was still busily scrubbing, Brother André said to the men assisting her, “Let her walk.” The woman walked out unassisted.
As the school’s doorkeeper, Frère André saluted and bid farewell to the many guests who came to the college. Having a keen interest in their spiritual welfare and a symphetic ear for their problems, the little doorman could often tell who was in need of his prayers or counsel. One day he noticed on the face of a guest — the father of a boarding student — a preoccupied, strained expression. When Brother André learned that the man was worried about his sick wife, he told him, “But she is not so sick as you think. At this very moment she became better.” The man was quite cynical, for he knew that his wife had been ill for many years. Yet upon arriving home, his wife greeted him at the door, perfectly healthy, in good spirits, and inquiring about the couple’s children. The man later learned, upon speaking with his wife’s nurse, that she had asked to be taken out of bed exactly when Brother André pronounced the words, “At this very moment, she became better.”
Father Henri-Paul Bergeron, a Holy Cross Priest who knew Frère André, gives an account in his book, The Wonder Man of Mount Royal, of an event that recalls some of those recorded in the Gospels:
“One day as he was going along Bienville Street in Montreal, a sick woman was brought to him. Immediately all of the sick of the neighborhood, children, men and women, were brought out until the whole street was filled with the sick and the infirm. Brother André attended to all with kindness, and his chauffeur. . . making his way through the crowd, remarked:
‘How wonderful; it is like a scene from the life of Our Lord: everyone rushed forth to beg for favors and cures.’
‘Perhaps so’ replied the Brother, ‘but God is surely making use of a very vile instrument.’”
On another occasion, when the porter was in the infirmary, he saw a student sick in bed. He told the boy, who had been ordered to rest by the school doctor, to get up. “You’re not sick, you lazy bones! Go and play with the others.” This the boy did, in perfect health and good cheer. The story of the incident soon spread around the college. Teachers, the doctor, students and parents alike marveled at the miracles wrought by the confident prayer of the young brother.
We say that the miracles were wrought by the prayers of the brother. Perhaps, if he were here, he would rebuke us for saying this. He never claimed that he worked a single miracle. In his humility he gave all the credit to Saint Joseph, in whose power Brother André had infinite confidence. In fact, any attempt to credit him with miracles brought a stern reprimand from the normally kind religious. One day a visitor said to him, “You are better than Saint Joseph. We pray to him and nothing happens, but when we come to see you we are cured.” The brother was so incensed at the slander of the Holy Patriarch that he screamed, “Get out of here. It is Saint Joseph who cured you, not I. Get out! Throw him out!” The incident shook the frail constitution of the holy man so much that he spent three days sick in bed.
If miracles are proof of the True God and His True Religion, then the miracle workers chosen by God are going to have enemies, just as God Himself did when He dwelt amongst us. It didn’t take long, then, for Brother André to acquire enemies of his own.
Many parents who sent their boys to the school were alarmed at the activities of its brother porter. Large numbers of sick were coming to the school where their children not only went to classes, but boarded as well. These pathetic masses — many of whom had contagious diseases — crowded about the train station across from the college. In their quest to see Frère André they constantly filed in and out of the very building where the students were housed. The just concerns of the parents, coupled with ill feelings (perhaps jealousy) of many at the college, spelled trouble for the porter. And worse yet, many physicians, whose hatred of religion was deposited upon the little man they styled a “fake healer,” added their venom to the rising fury. Soon Brother André had a mob of hostile enemies complaining to his superiors, the bishop, and even the public health officials.
The Bishop of Montreal — at this time, Bishop Bruchesi — dismissed the multitudes who came to complain to him. But this did not mean he was unconcerned. He scheduled an appointment with Brother André’s superiors, many of whom were not convinced of the divine origin of the miracles. During the meeting, the bishop asked whether Brother André would cease his activities if told under obedience. The reply came, “He would obey blindly.” To this the bishop said, ” Then let him alone. If this work is from God, it will live; if not, it will crumble away.”
Not only was the Bishop won over by the porter’s virtue; even the public health officials, who were forced to investigate the goings on at the college, came back from their meeting with him impressed at his common sense and stability. The enemies of Brother André failed, and Bishop Bruchesi’s statement was proven true: the work was from God and it did live.
The Oratory of Saint Joseph
In the midst of all of the excitement, the brother’s heart became fixed on one holy ambition: the erection in Montreal of a shrine to Saint Joseph.
Brother André was not the first to conceive such an idea. Years before, in 1855, the saintly Bishop Bourget had written in the decrees of the Second Plenary Council of Quebec:
St. Joseph, then, must have a church which will in a certain sense supply the service of all the others, and in which he may receive every day the public honors due to his eminent virtues . . . We wish to consecrate whatever is left to us of strength and life in the task of having him honored in such a church and of making that church a place of pilgrimage whither the faithful will come to visit him. . .
This is the same bishop whom we reported earlier saved Brother André’s vocation nearly twenty years after writing these words. Perhaps he knew that the holy little novice who pleaded with him was the humble instrument through which the Patron of Canada would finally have a worthy shrine built. But even Bishop Bourget was not the first to express the desire that such a shrine be built. Father Moreau had dreamt of a place of pilgrimage to Saint Joseph in the very early years of the Holy Cross Congregation in France. He thought of using the novitiate at Charbonnière, near Le Mans, for such a site. Both men were dead and buried before the Oratory was started, but both had a hand in its foundation all the same.
The shrine was in the thoughts and prayers of the porter for quite some time before he dared ask permission to build such a thing. He let only a handful of privileged friends know of his holy aspiration. Every once in a while he would let out a stray remark impressing on the hearer the need for a chapel to Saint Joseph. Some of these occasions came with certain signs of the divine origin of the brother’s dream. One of his confreres told him of a strange phenomenon in his cell: It seemed that every time this religious put his statue of Saint Joseph facing his bed, he came back to find the statue turned around, facing the Mount Royal. Laughing, Frère André told his confrere, “It is not strange at all; it simply means that Saint Joseph wants to be honored on the mountain.”
Certainly Brother André wanted Saint Joseph honored on the mountain. In 1890, he took a young student with him on one of his regular Thursday meditation walks. Taking the student up to the mountainside across the street from the school, he told him, “I have hidden a medal of Saint Joseph here. We will pray that he will arrange the purchase of this land for us.” For six years he persevered in prayer for that intention, and in 1896, his prayers were rewarded. The Holy Cross Congregation purchased the land, fearing that such a prime piece of real estate would attract a club or resort which would be an unwholesome distraction so near the students. After the land was purchased, Brother André put a statue of Saint Joseph in a little cave on his chosen site. Placing a bowl in front of the statue, he planned on collecting alms from Saint Joseph’s petitioners, alms which would be used to build a chapel.
The building of the shrine was a complex thing. It would be a distraction in this short biography to go into all of the details of what was completed and when. Indeed, at times the biographies of the Blessed read more like architectural manuals than the life of a saint. This is because the life of the little brother was so intimately connected with the building of this shrine that one cannot be discussed without the other. To put it simply, what started out as a fifteen-by eighteen foot chapel in 1904 became a minor basilica in 1955, and was completed — interior and all — in 1966. In his lifetime, the shrine became big enough to warrant having a full-time guardian, a job to which Brother André was appointed in 1909. For the present, however, we would rather discuss the life of the holy builder than the building itself.
From the moment that he conceived the idea to the day he died, the Oratory of Saint Joseph was a sacred task which Blessed André pursued with burning zeal. Everything that he could do in the confines of religious obedience to make the shrine a reality, he did immediately.
In his days as porter in the college, he also became the school’s barber, a position which gave him opportunity to give holy counsel to the boys. When the students paid him the small fee for their haircuts, Brother André would set the money aside for the shrine.
Miracles in the U.S.A.
The determination that our brother had to build the shrine to Saint Joseph took him well beyond the confines of Montreal to find the money needed for the project. He toured many cities in the United States and Canada in this holy pursuit. Many of the French-Canadian towns around Boston, including the industrial cities of Lowell and Fitchburg, were on his itinerary. In these forays, he made the rounds of factories to beg contributions from their workers.
Even today can be found residents of these areas who vividly recall the visits of the saint. A religious in our own order once met such a privileged resident, who related the story of a young couple with an infant diagnosed as having a brain tumor. Upon learning of the child’s malady, Blessed André took the baby into his arms, gently rubbing the afflicted infant’s head. The moving scene of the aged Brother caressing the infirm baby was more than just a tender moment; the child, it was later discovered, was completely cured.
Another episode in his American travels saw the conversion of a young non-Catholic named Henry Paine. Mr. Paine had pierced his hand with ice tongs and it was so infected that the doctors talked of amputating the affected member. The young man promised his Canadian visitor that that he would convert if he was healed. At the touch of Frère André’s hand, the pain left. Almost immediately, the hand was completely cured. Mr.Paine kept his promise: he did indeed convert; and soon after, he married a Catholic young lady.
The miracles wrought at the Oratory were many and spectacular. Still there were critics. Many cynics doubted the efficacy of St. Joseph’s oil, medals and novenas for healing bodily illnesses. Others took the cures for granted, thinking that it was the good work of the kindly brother, who, like any other humanitarian, had no other aim in mind than taking away people’s suffering. But for Blessed André, the working of miracles had one end and one end only: Faith.
Zeal for Souls
Many of the people who sought cures from Frère André were good Catholics; but others were heretics and unbelievers of all kinds. One of the witnesses at his cause for beatification said, “As to heretics, schismatics and also unbelievers, Brother André treated them with more kindness and sympathy than the Catholics. He wanted to gain the confidence of such people. When the right time came he talked to them of the goodness of God and of religion. . . He profited by the visits of Protestants and unbelievers to slide in a good word to them, an evangelical word.”
It was by this kind of work that the guardian of the Oratory wrought thousands of conversions, many among lapsed and lukewarm Catholics, but also among Protestants, Freemasons and Jews. Brother André looked upon the humility of the non-Catholic, in coming to a Catholic brother for a cure, as the beginning of faith. In this he was imitating Our Lord Himself. When the father of the possessed boy in Saint Mark’s Gospel begged for a cure, Jesus told him that all things were possible to those who had faith. And immediately the father of the boy crying out, with tears said: I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief. Like Our Lord, Blessed André took every opportunity to give the gift of faith to the unbeliever. About this, the Blessed said, “Those who are cured quickly often are people who have no faith or little faith. On the other hand, those who have solid faith are not cured so quickly, for the good God prefers to allow them to suffer that they will be sanctified even more.”
In early life, our diminutive porter acquired the habit of frequent, long, and devout prayer. As he advanced in years, this habit never waned. During the daytime, which he typically spent cleaning and doing other chores, Frère André received many visitors. At night he frequently visited hospitals, oftentimes returning with crutches to add to the growing collection in the Oratory. After such a day, he would spend much of the night in prayer. One of his intimates said about this, “Frequently, after his sick calls, he invited me to sleep in his cell over the primitive chapel. More than once I struggled against sleep in order to watch him. Towards morning I fell asleep while he remained in prayer. When I awoke, about five o’clock, I often noticed his bed had not been touched.”
Though he is known for his tremendous devotion to Saint Joseph, all those who knew him said that Blessed André’s central devotion was to the Passion of Our Lord. Many times, he would turn a worldly conversation into an emotional narration of Our Lord’s sufferings, often bringing those present, including himself, to tears. Because of this devotion, the good brother led Friday Stations of the Cross every week at the Oratory, hoping one day to construct a large set of stations around the Basilica’s exterior.
His devotion to Our Lady was quite conspicuous too. Logically, with such a love of the Passion, he often invoked Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, the title under which she is the Patroness of the Holy Cross Congregation. Frequently he walked around with Our Lady’s Rosary in his hand; and in visiting the sick or raising funds for the Oratory, he would take advantage of the car ride to recite not one but several Rosaries. In his simplicity, he spoke of the Virgin as a child would: “If you consider all the saints, you will see that all of them had a devotion to the Blessed Virgin; Her intercession is most powerful, she is the Mother of God and the Mother of men.”
The piety that he had toward the Patron of the Universal Church was simple and childlike too: “When you invoke Saint Joseph, you don’t have to speak much. You know your Father in heaven knows what you need; well, so does His friend Saint Joseph.” “Tell him, ‘If you were in my place, Saint Joseph, what would you do? Well, pray for this in my behalf.’” To the people who came to him with their troubles — and thousands did — the friend of Saint Joseph recommended the use of sacramentals, like Saint Joseph’s oil or a Saint Joseph medal. Most of all, he recommended persevering and confident prayer, usually prescribing a novena to his powerful benefactor.
A typical example of the favors wrought through the intercession of Saint Joseph is this one: A girl at a convent school not far from Quebec was severely injured when another child struck her in the right eye with an oar. The doctors tried to save the eye, but paralysis of the optic nerve set in, causing the girl to lose her sight. The sisters at the school had heard of the cures at the Oratory and procured a medal of Saint Joseph which had been blessed there. They decided to make a novena. For nine days, all the Sisters and students received Holy Communion and prayed to the foster-father of Jesus, applying the medal to the child’s eye. There was no progress at all during the course of the novena, but they remained confident. On the ninth day, after everyone had received Holy Communion, the child opened her eye to see the chapel’s statue of Blessed Joseph. Before the cure, the seriousness and permanence of the damage had been verified in writing by two competent ophthalmologists. Later, these two declared that the eye was perfectly cured, with no trace of injury. Neither could explain the cure.
Though Brother André was given the grace to heal others, he was constantly sick himself. He suffered from stomach illness all of his life. As a result, he could eat little more than a mixture of flour and watered-down milk, or sometimes bread soaked in the same. To him, these sufferings were an opportunity for reaching greater sanctity. As we shall see, his final sickness provided him with many such opportunities. When asked if he was in great pain, he said, “Indeed I am, but I thank God for giving me the grace to suffer; I need it so much!”
The Death of a Saint
In the ninety-first year of a life dedicated to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the miracle man sensed his imminent departure from this vale of tears. Late in 1936, he told one of the priests in his order that Christmas of that year would be his last in this life. Once, when he passed the tiny hospital of Saint-Laurent, he commented, “What a fine place for patients to prepare for death.” At 8:30 in the evening of December 31, the wonder worker who cured so many was himself admitted to that very hospital for what the physician thought was a mild heart attack, but was later diagnosed as acute gastritis.
He spent his dying days as he had spent his whole life, unconcerned with his own sufferings — which were great, considering that he refused any pain medication — and constantly praying for others. He offered up his prayers and mortifications for Catholic Spain, then being torn asunder by civil war, prior to General Franco’s defeat of the Communists. He also prayed for the Holy Father, Pope Pius XI, who was sick and near to death. With friends at the side of his own deathbed telling him how much he was still needed, the good brother said, “There is one who is far more necessary than Brother André in this world: that is the Pope. If the Holy Father passed away, it would be disaster; he still has much to accomplish.”
The Pontiff lived for two more years, years in which he did accomplish much, addressing problems all over the globe: the Germans losing their faith to Nazism, the Mexicans being oppressed by an evil Masonic government, and the even more horrible menace of Communism. On March 19, 1937 — the Feast of Saint Joseph — the Holy Pontiff published Divini Redemptoris, an encyclical letter condemning Communism. As if in gratitude for his own recovery and with great confidence in the mighty Patriarch, towards the end of the encylical Pius wrote,
. . .We place the vast campaign of the Church against world Communism under the standard of Saint Joseph, her mighty Protector.
Like Our Blessed Lord on the Cross, his faithful imitator spoke many words of piety and holy resignation to God’s will during his final agony: “My God how I suffer. . . Heaven is so beautiful that it is worth all the trouble with which one prepares for it.. . . How good God is. . . How beautiful. . . How powerful. . . Mary, Sweet mother, mother of my sweet Savior, be merciful to me and help me . . . Saint Joseph. . . ”
The name of his holy patron was the last intelligible word issued from the holy lips of Blessed André.
So Brother André died as he had lived, suffering heroically, praying fervently, and even working great cures. The purely spiritual mission of his life became more evident when, during the exposition of his body — which lasted a week — confessionals were filled with repentant sinners who had been away from God’s grace too long. Not only at the Oratory, but all over Montreal sinners were returning to God in great numbers as more than one million people streamed past his poor little coffin. Some of these people had been sworn enemies who had spurned the miracle worker as a fake, having dubbed him, “the old fool on the mountain.” The “old fool’s” prayers very well may have saved many of these from an eternity without God, just as they may have saved Canada from the clutches of Communism.
Today, the mortal remains of Blessed Brother André lie in a black marble sepulcher in the back of the Oratory, the shrine he dedicated his life to erecting for Saint Joseph. In front of the Basilica towers a statue of Saint Joseph holding the Child Jesus. The millions who file past it every year see on its stone pedestal the words which the saintly old guardian calls out from heaven: ITE AD JOSEPH — GO TO JOSEPH!