Saint of the Week: St. Andre Bessette (His Feast Day: January 6)
Alfred Bessette was born Aug. 9, 1845. At his birth he was so weak that his parents baptized him. Alfred’s father moved the family to Farnhan in 1849 where he hoped to lift them from poverty while working as a lumberman. He died five years later when he was crushed by a falling tree. Alfred was nine at the time.
His mother found herself widowed at 40 with 10 children in her care. Three years later she died of tuberculosis, having never fully recovered from the shock of her husband’s death. Much later, Brother Andre was heard to say: “I rarely prayed for my mother, but I often prayed to her.”
The family was dispersed. At age 12, Alfred was forced to leave school to learn a trade and to look for work. He began thirteen years of wandering from job to job with few belongings and very little reaming; he was barely able to write his name or read his prayer book.
In spite of his physical weakness, Alfred tried to make a living as an unskilled worker. He traveled from job to job as an apprentice and was easily exploited by those stronger than him. For a time, he worked on construction projects. Later, he made his living as a farm boy, tinsmith, blacksmith, baker, cobbler and coachman.
Following the flow of French-Canadian emigrants, he went to the United States and worked four years in the textile mills. Even in poor health, he put his whole heart into his work. “Despite my weak condition, I did not let anyone get ahead of me as far as work was concerned,” he said later.
In 1867, he resumed to Canada with thousands of others who were to witness the dawn of the Canadian Confederation.
Three years later, Alfred presented himself as a candidate at the novitiate of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal. Because of his uncertain health, his superiors had doubts concerning his religious vocation. Finally, he was accepted and given the name Brother Andre. He was made porter at Notre Dame college and was known to say: “When I entered the community, my superiors showed me the door, and I remained there 40 years without leaving.” He also washed floors and windows, cleaned lamps, brought in firewood, and worked as messenger.
Soon Brother Andre started to welcome the sick and broken-hearted. He invited them to pray to St. Joseph to obtain favors. Before long, many people reported their prayers were being answered. For 25 years, in his small office or in the tramway station across the street from the college, Brother Andre spent six to eight hours a day receiving visitors. He built a chapel with the help of friends and with the money he earned giving haircuts to the students of the college. He was certain that St. Joseph wanted a place on the mountain and he spent his whole life preparing a beautiful shrine in the saint’s honor.
In the meantime, there was talk of healings which doctors could not explain. Brother Andre began visiting the sick and earned the reputation of miracle-worker. But he strongly protested: “I am nothing … only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.” He went even further: “People are silly to think that I can perform miracles. It is God and St. Joseph who can heal you, not I.”
His aloofness in the presence of strangers contrasted sharply with the carefree side he showed friends. He loved to tease. He would often say: “You must not be sad; it is good to laugh a little.” Brother Andre was always cheerful and tried to communicate his happiness to others, especially to the poor and unfortunate. He used his sense of humor to share his joy and to slip some good advice into a conversation, or to change the subject when a verbal attack on someone was brewing.
He was a man of determination who refused to compromise his principles. His great respect for others was largely responsible for the respect others had for him. He was a very sensitive man. At times, he could be seen crying with the sick or being moved to tears after hearing a particularly sad story from one of his visitors.
During all these years, an immense project was being realized and larger crowds were swarming to the Oratory. The first small chapel had been erected in 1904, but it soon became too small to receive all the people who were coming to the mountain. The chapel was extended in 1908 and again in 1910. Still, a larger church was needed.
In 1917, a new crypt church, able to hold a thousand persons, was inaugurated. This, however, was only the starting point of an even more important endeavor. During his whole life, Brother Andre devoted his efforts to building the Oratory, which was to become the world’s greatest sanctuary dedicated to St. Joseph.
And yet, Brother Andre never referred to “my project, my work”. On the contrary, he said: “God chose the most ignorant one. If there was anyone more ignorant than I am, God would have chosen him instead of me.”
When crowds came to the Oratory for important celebrations, Brother Andre would go into seclusion. He would hide behind the choir and pray quietly.
The economic crisis of 1931 forced the construction of the basilica to come to a standstill. In 1936, the authorities of the Congregation of Holy Cross called a special meeting to decide if the project should continue, especially since snow and frost threatened to damage the roofless structure. The provincial summoned Brother Andre for his opinion. The aging brother had only a few words for the assembly: “This is not my work, it is the work of St. Joseph. Put one of his statues in the middle of the building. If he wants a roof over his head, he’ll take care of it.”
Brother Andre assigned great importance to meeting and greeting people. He spent long hours in the office where thousands came to see him. In the evenings, he visited homes or hospitals accompanied by one of his friends.
In fact, he was so good-natured and put so much humor into these daily outings that some considered him to be an “old gadabout” who liked to travel around in a friend’s car. But Brother Andre replied: “There are some who say that it is for pleasure that I visit the sick, but after a day’s work, it is far from being for pleasure….”
His kindness and compassion were matched by a sharpness of mind which prompted him to say: “It is surprising that I am frequently asked for cures, but rarely for humility and the spirit of faith. Yet, they are so important….”
On another occasion he said: “If the soul is sick, one must begin by treating the soul.” His often repeated questions were well known: “Do you have faith? Do you believe that God can do something for you? Go confess yourself to the priest, go to communion and then come back to see me.” These were the words he used constantly when asked for favors and cures.
Brother Andre understood the sense and the value of suffering and spoke with depth when addressing the subject. “People who suffer have something to offer to God. When they succeed in enduring their suffering, that is a daily miracle.”
To someone who was suffering, he said: “Do not seek to have these trials lifted from you. Instead, ask for the grace to bear them well.”
There are people who still claim to have received the gift of healing from Brother Andre and yet he always denied that he had any gift of healing. “I have no gift and I cannot give any.”
Generally, he encouraged people to see a doctor for treatment. To doctors, he said: “Your work is good. Your science was given to you by God. You must thank Him and pray to Him.”
“God,” he said, “is love and he loves us; that is the heart of the Christian faith.”
“God gave us the commandments and it is in observing them that we show whether we love God. Pray that you may obtain a true love of God. God loves us so much. He wants us to love Him.”
Brother Andre’s way of speaking about God helped him succeed in sowing seeds of hope in the people he met. One of his friends said: “I never brought a sick person to Brother Andre without that person returning home enriched. Some were cured. Others died some time later, but Brother Andre had consoled them.”
To live in God’s house is heaven, Brother Andre said: “You know, it is permitted to desire death if one’s unique goal is to go toward God. When I die, I will go to heaven, I will be much closer to God than I am now; I will have more power to help you.”
A few months before his death, those around him heard him cry out, “I am suffering so much, my God! My God!” And then, in a very weak voice: “Here is the grain,” as if referring to the Gospel [“Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But If it dies, it brings forth much fruit” (Jn 12, 24)].
“He spent his whole life speaking of others to God, and of God to others,” said a friend of Brother Andre’s. It is difficult to say at what point in his life work began and ended, and at what point prayer started and ended: the two seemed to flow so naturally one into the other. He died Jan. 6, 1937, at the age of 92, and newspapers reported that more than a million people attended his wake and burial.
His body lies today in a simple tomb in the beautiful basilica that rises gracefully on Mount Royal. To this day, thousands of visitors come to St. Joseph Basilica to receive physical and spiritual healing.
Saint Andre Bessette, pray for us!
Learn more about Brother Andre by reading an extended biography at Catholicism.org – click here.