The Saint and His Mountain: Brother André Bessette

[Review of Brother André: Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of Saint Joseph, by Father Jean-Guy Dubuc, C.S.C. Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana]

How we all rejoiced last October when Blessed Brother André was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. As the first male Canadian-born saint, as well as the first saint of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Brother André’s sainthood gladdens the hearts of his followers all over the Catholic world, most especially in Canada and the United States. In the most recent book about this humble man, originally printed in French in 1996 and just last year in English, Ave Maria Press has given us the most up-to-date and complete story of Saint André’s life yet published.

Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of Saint Joseph was written by the man who knew perhaps better than any other about Brother André’s interior spiritual life because of his years-long study of the holy man. Although during his lifetime he became very famous with hundreds of petitioners thronging to his humble lodging each day, Brother André left nothing written of his inner life. Indeed, the belief exists that he was illiterate. This is untrue. While he was not lettered, he studied Scripture and could quote much of the New Testament by heart. He traveled thousands of miles during his long life helping his beloved poor and spent most of each day listening to the problems of his visitors. But who was he? He spoke virtually nothing of himself.

The process of canonization is long and can be tedious. Declaring a cure miraculous requires meticulous investigation. The healing under study must be found to be “spontaneous, long-lasting, scientifically unexplainable and attained specifically through the intercession of the Servant of God.” There must be a medical and a theological evaluation and a further favorable decision made by a commission of bishops and cardinals. Such a cure occurred in 1999. A young boy seriously injured in an auto accident was in an irreversible coma resulting from brain damage. There had been numerous healings attributed to Brother André before that time, of course, but this was the one that put our saint “over the top” — from Blessed to Saint.

Poverty and Ill Health

Born Alfred Bessette, into a large, very poor French Canadian family in Quebec Province in 1845, Brother André was the eighth child. He was tiny and in fragile health from the beginning, thus becoming the favorite of his mother. It was at her knee that he learned to pray his Rosary. She taught him the importance of the Catholic Faith. His father died when he was only ten years old, putting an even greater financial strain on the family. Times were hard; so the children were separated and sent to various cousins, aunts and uncles to be raised. Young Alfred was unskilled in any kind of labor and always had to take the lowest-paying kind of job because of his frail health. He sought work even as far south as the New England states and New York, finding odd jobs in the New Hampshire factories at the age of twenty. Many French Canadians had moved to New England looking for work, taking their culture and religion with them, and Alfred always could find a cousin or two to stay with while working there.

God Leads Alfred to Holy Cross

Eventually, Alfred settled in the Parish of Saint-Cesaire, near the growing city of Sherbrooke. The town was primarily French and was dominated by a beautiful new church shepherded by an energetic and holy pastor, Father André Provencal. The good father took the young man under his wing, allowing him to do odd jobs around the church and its growing complex. Instead of courting or socializing, Alfred spent his spare moments in the Church praying before the main altar or in front of the statue of Saint Joseph, to whom, even from a young age, he had great devotion. Knowing the young man’s limitations of education and health, Father Provencal deemed it inappropriate for Alfred to aspire to the priesthood. The religious life, perhaps, as a lay brother? To that end, he wrote to the Holy Cross Congregation authorities at Notre-Dame College in Montreal, across from the dominant point of the city’s skyline, Mount Royal. He told them, “I am sending you a saint….” The rest, as they say, is history.

He knocked at the college at the age of twenty-five, armed only with a burning desire to do something good for God. What would they do with him? In his waning years, Brother André quipped, “When I first came to the college, I was shown to the door…and I remained there for forty years!” He was made porter (doorkeeper), and did his job so well that he was given a little nook for a room just near the main door of Notre-Dame where he greeted visitors at any time of the day or night. As at the factories of New England and the parish buildings of Saint-Cesaire, he did many other “odd” jobs — sweeping the halls, taking care of the lights, cleaning the chapel — never refusing any small task that was asked of him. When his candidacy was rejected after a year because of his delicate health, Brother André (a name he took in honor of his mentor, Father Provencal) was crushed. Providence arranged a visit from the Bishop of Montreal, and, the young brother, heedless of protocol, fell on his knees before Bishop Bourget, and poured out his heart, asking him to help him realize his vocation. “The community will keep you…” And keep him they did, until his holy death at the age of ninety-one in 1937.

The Miracle Man

Greeting the public as he did, Brother André began to pray with those who told him of their physical and spiritual afflictions. He always had a special love for the poor and suffering. He began to cure afflictions simply by telling people to throw away their crutches, or get up and walk away from their wheel chairs, or “you will be better in the morning.” These events occurred thousands of times. He became so popular that the city of Montreal had to divert a transportation line to the entrance of the college to accommodate the numbers of visitors, and the Congregation had to build a sort of reception room so that he could receive them there. As might be expected, more educated men demeaned his “miraculous” cures to be the work of a charlatan. He was the recipient of the particularly venomous attacks of one Doctor Charette, because the doctor’s patients showed more confidence in an ignorant, insignificant little brother than in his own scientifically informed medical expertise.  Doctor Charette’s own wife suffered from a never-ending nasal hemorrhage which he was unable to stop. The blood gushed for days from Madame Charette’s nose, without her husband being able to stop it. Finally, the doctor succumbed to his wife’s pleas to fetch Brother André. The blood stopped the moment the holy man walked into the room, and it never returned. Never again did Doctor Charette doubt Brother André’s ability to intercede with God and Saint Joseph to affect cures!

Two aspects of this book particularly interested this reader. The first is the complete family history of the Bessettes, even to how they came by their last name. The second is the great amount of space dedicated to building of the Oratory itself — from the early conception of the shrine in Brother André’s mind, to the clearing of the mountain (Mont Royal, from which Montreal gets its name), to the enormous amount of work and cost that went into building the shrine atop the mountain. As he stood in his little nook of a room at the college during his early years as porter, Brother André envisioned a great Basilica in honor of Saint Joseph on that rise of land. He would place a statue of Our Lord’s foster father at the window, so that the saint could see “his” mountain, where he would someday be honored. Given the hard times and the huge cost of the undertaking, it seems almost a miracle that the place was actually built! It is disappointing that photographs were not included in the book to give the reader an idea of the enormity of the undertaking. It is not that they do not exist, for Saint Joseph’s Oratory is still visited by thousands of persons from all over the world each year. Some pilgrims climb the many steps up the mountain on their knees, petitioning Saint Joseph, and now Saint André, for personal favors and cures.

The Oratory is an amazing place to visit; perhaps only seeing it in person can one appreciate the scale of its grandeur. One can venerate Saint André’s burial site and view his first, tiny chapel on the mountain, as well as pray the life-size Stations of the Cross in the wooded areas of Mount Royal. Perhaps Saint André of Montreal will work the greatest miracle of all: to bring his beloved French Canada back to the Faith that he so loved.

Saint André of Montreal, pray for us, and pray for Canada and the United States.