Brother André’s compassionate spirit changed thousands of lives

By 
  • October 4, 2010

statue of Brother AndréIt is probable that Brother André would not approve of being made a saint. Or perhaps not even comprehend it.

Once on a tour of the exile Quebecois towns of New England, the already famous Brother André arrived in a place where the priest and the whole French-speaking community anxiously waited. He was already known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal.” The Connecticut pastor had organized a procession and the people greeted Brother André with a great feast. The whole community turned out to pray the rosary.



When he got back to Montreal, Brother André told his community of Holy Cross brothers about this feast he stumbled into during his latest trip to raise money for St. Joseph’s Oratory, the half-completed structure on Mount Royal that was already beginning to fill up with crutches and canes. He told them he simply could not figure out what the occasion was for such a big feast.

It never occurred to Brother André the feast was for him — that he was the occasion.

Anyone who walks into St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal and sees the racks of canes and crutches stretching up the walls — hardwood evidence of the thousands of miraculous cures brought about by Brother André’s prayers — might wonder how the little brother could have failed to see how much he meant to people. This man freed people of pain and suffering with oil that collected under a candle in front of a statue of St. Joseph, with holy medals and with prayers.

But it wasn’t just magic medicine, writes one of Brother André’s biographers.

“Brother André’s every gesture simultaneously fortified the faith of those delivered from their woes, and bolstered the belief of witnesses to his deeds,” writes Jean-Guy Dubac in Brother André: Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of St. Joseph. “Brother André unburdened many pilgrims and sometimes changed the course of their lives. He did this in a spirit of compassion, and his practice was perceived as such.”

There was no hocus-pocus about Brother André’s cures. The testimony of Lionel Maynard before an ecclesiastical court in Providence, Rhode Island, shows how directly and simply Brother André dealt with people. Maynard told the court:

“Brother André cured me. I was stricken with the rot (tuberculosis) of the spinal vertebrae. This was in 1926. My brother-in-law, Dr. Fulgence Archambault, diagnosed the sickness and referred me to Dr. Maria Danford, a specialist from Providence. I spent four weeks in a hospital, with no change in my condition. I left on crutches. I also had to wear a plaster corset reinforced by an iron brace. On Nov. 29 I was in excruciating pain. Mr. Philippe Brouillard persuaded me to see Brother André, who was staying with Mr. Boulet. As he entered the room where the sick were waiting for him, Brother André came straight to me. He asked me what was wrong and told me to get up. I managed a few steps, leaning heavily on my crutches. Then Brother André told me to give him the crutches and made me walk without them, faster and faster. Which I did, without ever feeling any pain, in front of about a hundred people, all moved to tears. That same evening, less than an hour later, I was back with my family, reciting my rosary on my knees. I gave my crutches and surgical corsets to Brother André, who took them back to the Oratory. I believe they are still there today.”

The whole Church feasts for Brother André every Jan. 6, and as of Oct. 17 it will be the feast day of a saint proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI to the universal Church.

Brother André’s talents for friendship, humility, prayer, patience and healing can’t be separated from his beginnings as an illiterate and sickly country boy alone in a world that didn’t much care what happened to him.

Alfred Bessette was born Aug. 9, 1845 to Isaac and Clothilde Bessette in Mont Saint-Gregoire, 50 km outside Montreal. He was the eighth of 12 children, two of whom would die young. Which is what everyone expected would happen to Alfred. His parents baptized him as soon as possible to at least save him from the terrible limbo of unbaptized innocents.

Though he survived, Alfred was never vigourous or healthy. On top of that frailty, at six the boy lost his father to a logging accident. His mother struggled to raise the huge family, and eventually contracted tuberculosis. When she could manage no longer, she sent the children to relatives, except for frail and vulnerable Alfred. She and Alfred went to live with her sister in St. Cesaire, but two years later Alfred was completely orphaned.

At 12 Alfred had had little opportunity to go to school. The orphan boy now had to go to work on his uncle’s farm. But he suffered from a delicate stomach and never had the stamina for farm work.

He tried to acquire a trade. Shoemaking sounded like a good idea, but days spent bent over the lasts working with leather made him sick. The heat of a bakery was also too much.

By the time he was 18, in 1863, it was time for Alfred to strike out on his own. He did what thousands of young Quebeckers were doing at that time — headed south to the mill towns of New England to work in the factories. He could make decent money in a town like Hartford, Conn., putting in long days in a factory. But his body would fail him and he wouldn’t last in the job. He knew his way around a farm, but farm work hardly paid at all.

The young man was far more happy and at home in the dim light of churches where he would spend all Sunday afternoon praying fervently to Christ and to St. Joseph.

This first stage of Brother André’s life came to a close in 1870, when at the age of 25 the

lonely young Alfred took his faith and his religious ardour to the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He carried with him a letter of recommendation from his parish priest, Fr. André Provençal. Provençal had written, “I am sending a saint to your Congregation.”

The Holy Cross fathers were not at first pleased with the idea of taking in this particular saint. The Congregation of the Holy Cross were mainly in the field of education, serving the newly urbanized, growing middle class of francophone families — giving their sons the tools to succeed in a new and rapidly changing economy.

Brother AndréAn illiterate country boy who didn’t even have a trade was not necessarily a good fit. He certainly wasn’t going to be a priest. As a novice, he did learn to read. But his delicate health remained an obstacle. Sensible people in the order thought it would be best to dismiss Alfred Bessette from the community rather than allow him to take vows.

It was only after the young man threw himself on the mercy of Montreal’s Bishop Ignace Bourget, pleading for the chance to say his vows and serve in the most humble capacities, that Alfred was finally allowed to profess final vows and become Brother André in 1874.

After telling Bishop Bourget, “My only ambition is to serve God in the most obscure tasks,” Brother André got his wish.

He was made the porter at the College Notre-Dame-du-Sacré Coeur just outside Montreal in Cote-des-Neiges. In later years Brother André would joke, “At the end of my novitiate, my superiors showed me the door, and I stayed there for 40 years.”

During those 40 years, Brother André greeted thousands of parents and nervous boys. He cut the boys’ hair. He cleaned their clothes. He ran every errand, scrubbed floors and did every menial task. And he prayed every chance he got. Now that he could read, he memorized the Passion as told in each of the four Gospels.

One of Brother André’s duties was watching over boys in the infirmary. One afternoon he came across a boy with a fever and asked him, “Why are you being so lazy?” When the boy protested that he was sick and had been sent to the infirmary by the nurse, Brother André’s response was, “No you’re not. Why don’t you go and play with the others.”

The kid did as he was told, and Brother André was told off by his superiors. Sending sick children out to play, interfering in the work of the nurse, was not considered a wise choice.

A doctor checked the boy several times, expecting some sort of relapse — but it never came.

Brother André was not deterred by his superior’s disapproval. When asked, he would pray with the sick, apply an oil he called St. Joseph’s oil, give the patient a medal with an image of St. Joseph or recommend a novena. At first students and then very soon their parents and relatives were inexplicably cured of all sorts of conditions.

By 1893 crowds of people coming to visit the porter were becoming a problem for the college. The teachers and some parents worried about all these sick people crowding around students, spreading disease.

A solution was afforded by the growing city of Montreal, which that year extended a tramway out to Cote-des-Nieges. The line would go right by the college, and Brother André was ordered to greet his visitors at the tram shelter across the road.

Crowds continued to grow.

“The thousands of cures, physical and spiritual, the former attested by medical evidence, have made his name known to Catholics throughout the Northern continent,” The Catholic Register reported in Brother André’s Jan. 14, 1937 front-page obituary. “Always however, Brother André denied that the cures were due to him, and declared they were the result of St. Joseph’s intercession.”

Think of the patience and stamina it would have taken, urges Holy Cross Father Claude Grou who today directs St. Joseph’s Oratory. There were hundreds of them day after day for years.

“He would in one or two sentences say, ‘Here is the oil of St. Joseph,’ or ‘Take a medal of St. Joseph,’ and say to them ‘Pray to St. Joseph, make a novena.’ All this would happen in less than two minutes, then the next person would come,” said Grou.

In our time we may think of spiritual direction as a slow process of shared reflection unravelled in hour-long sessions over a period of weeks or months. Brother André developed a capacity to connect with the spiritual needs of people almost instantly.

“He was able to listen for one minute to what they say and then give an orientation,” Grou said.

“It can’t be denied that he did give their health back to thousands of people who were suffering from various ailments: rheumatism, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, asthma and injuries from serious accidents,” writes Fr. Georges Madore in Brother André: A Saint for Today.

Out there in the bus shelter, enduring Montreal winters, Brother André looked on the slopes of Mount Royal and thought it would be good to have a little place on the mountainside where people could gather and pray to St. Joseph. His superiors also happened to be thinking about that piece of land. They wanted to own it just for insurance — so they could be sure nothing would be built there to the detriment of the college.

The dream of the little chapel, the dream that would grow into one of the largest basilicas in the Americas, began the third stage of Brother André’s life.

The Congregation of the Holy Cross did buy that piece of land in 1896, but they were having none of Brother André’s scheme for a chapel. It wasn’t until 1902 that his superiors would relent just a little.

That year the college porter had been dangerously ill, which may have played a role in persuading his superiors to grant Brother André permission to build a chapel for St. Joseph. But permission was all they gave him.

“Tell St. Joseph construction can begin as soon as you find the money,” they told him.

The original budget for the Oratory was $200 the brother had put aside from his work cutting the students’ hair. While $200 was a serious sum before the First World War, it wasn’t enough to build a chapel.

The college community’s carpenter, Brother Abundius, helped Brother André get started. Over his years of visiting with families, Brother André had made hundreds of friends. Somehow the money and the volunteers never quite ran out.

“A lot of people have big dreams and they keep dreaming about them,” observed Grou. “But he shared these dreams with the people around him. Some of his confreres, not all of them, but some of them would share these dreams with him.”

This ability to share his dreams was an extension of Brother André’s talent for friendship, said Grou.

“That’s the amazing thing — the capacity to bring people around the project which was important to him,” he said.

The tiny little chapel that opened in 1904 lacked windows and doors. The walls were covered with corrugated iron. There was no steeple. A little sunlight seeped in through frosted glass in the roof. The facade of the building swung open and to accommodate overflow crowds for open-air Masses.

This chapel was immediately inadequate.

In 1908 a second, larger chapel was erected — still not big enough. But this one got a steeple in 1909.

At the time, devotion to St. Joseph was booming. The Confraternity of St. Joseph was established in 1909 and grew to 40,000 members by 1936. By 1914 the Holy Cross Order knew the faithful were demanding a full-size, proper church dedicated to St. Joseph. Construction began in 1916. By the summer of 1917 the smaller sanctuary known as the crypt of today’s Oratory was completed, but was still too small. In 1924 the cornerstone was laid for the big domed church above the crypt.

Throughout this period Brother André’s fame as a faith healer grew. In 1922 Col. George Ham, an English-speaking Protestant, published The Miracle Man of Montreal in Toronto. Brother André was no longer a Quebec phenomenon whose fame had spread to the francophone diaspora in the northeastern United States. Nor even just a Canadian phenomenon. In 1925 New Yorker William Gregory wrote another book about Brother André in which he claimed 300,000 Americans had visited the Oratory in 1924.

From 1909 on, beginning at the age of 64, Brother André was no longer the porter at College Notre Dame. He became the full-time “Keeper of the Oratory.” His main job was raising money and encouraging donations of labour and materials.

Knights of Columbus Brother AndréThere’s no record of fiery, impressive preaching or massive elaborately planned events to support his fundraising. Rather, it seems Brother André’s only technique for raising money was friendship. Nor was he particularly interested in cultivating friends among the rich. Far more poor people counted Brother André their friend than the wealthy, the powerful and the educated. The elite seems to have resisted his charms.

When he was the physician for College Notre Dame, Dr. Joseph-Albin Charette gave Brother André the derisive nick-name “Old Greaser.” He let everyone know he thought the porter was a fraud, rubbing holy oil on people who should have had proper medical attention. But when Charette’s wife developed a nasal hemorrhage that wouldn’t stop, she asked to see the brother. The doctor, who had done all he could but could not cure her, swallowed his pride and asked Brother André to come.

“She will not die,” Brother André told the doctor on his way to visit the Charette home.

The bleeding stopped, and so did Charette’s taunts.

At an age that most people are retired, Brother André tirelessly travelled, met with people and encouraged them. Not everything went smoothly all the time. After the stock market collapse in 1929, work on the Oratory slowed. In 1931 construction halted.

Brother André died Jan. 6, 1937 at 91 years of age. A million people stood in line to pass by his coffin.

Construction on the giant basilica resumed that year. By 1941 the cross crowning the Oratory was in place, blessed by Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau. The big church on the hill, built by an illiterate and sickly farm boy in his old age, became an emblem of spiritual identity for hundreds of thousands of Quebeckers.

“The people of Montreal needed a place to come and identify themselves and this place became a kind of symbol of their identity, and a place they could come and visit freely,” said Grou.

 

 


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