St. Brother André Bessette, C.S.C. was a pretty amazing man who is the first saint from the Congregation of Holy Cross. He lived a life of humility, prayer, devotion to St. Joseph and comforting the sick. Through his intercessory prayers to St. Joseph, many people have received healing.
Born in Quebec in 1845 as Alfred Bessette, he was the eighth of twelve children. He lost his father to a lumber accident when he was nine and lost his mother to tuberculosis at age twelve. He was adopted and worked as a farmhand, shoemaker, baker and blacksmith. He later was a factory work in the U.S. during the Civil War.
Alfred’s parish priest noticed Alfred’s devotion to God and strong faith. Believing Alfred would be a great brother despite his constant health problems, his priest sent a note along with Alfred to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal. Within his note about Alfred he said “I am sending you a saint.” He was still rejected however, due to his health, but through the urging of the local Archbishop, Alfred was accepted into the novitiate in 1872 to become a religious brother. Alfred took the religious name Brother André and made his final vows as a religious brother in 1874 at the age of 28.
André’s primary task initially was to be the porter (door keeper) at the Notre Dame College in Côte-de-Neiges, Quebec. He jokingly said of this task and his initial rejection from Holy Cross, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years.” It was through this role as porter that Br. André was able to minister to the sick. People would come to the door and Br. André would pray with the people to God and ask for St. Joseph’s intercession. At that time hundreds claimed they were healed through Br. André’s prayers, and that number now stretches into the hundred thousands. The walls of the St. Joseph’s Oratory, a place of prayer built to honor St. Joseph through Br. André’s efforts are lined with crutches and canes of those who have been healed. Br. André contributed all the cures to St. Joseph, frequently rub oil from the lamp burning at a statue of St. Joseph’s in their college chapel on a sick person in addition to praying for St. Joseph’s intercession.
Br. André became known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal.” He was known to have a statue of St. Joseph on his windowsill facing Mount Royal and would say, “Some day, St. Joseph is going to be honored in a very special way on Mount Royal!”
After many years of trying to buy land on Mount Royal, Brother André and some others climbed the very steep hill of Mount Royal and planted medals of St. Joseph on the mount. Suddenly the owners of the land relented and sold land to the Congregation of Holy Cross. Brother André built a small chapel to St. Joseph and was assigned to be the full-time caretaker of St. Joseph’s Church. Br. André spent his days receiving visitors and in prayer, which lead to many healings. By the 1920s however, the chapel was too small for the over one million annual pilgrims and visitors, expansions were made to the chapel but it was still too small. And so the building of a larger oratory was begun. In 1931, during the building of the current St. Joseph’s Oratory, money was tight but Brother André, ever steadfast in his faith and devotion to St. Joseph said, “Put a statue of St. Joseph in the middle. If he wants a roof over his head, he’ll get it.”
Br. André Bessette died in Montreal on January 6, 1937 at the age of 92. Over a million people filed past his casket to say their good-byes to Br. André over the course of six days and nights. St. Brother André Bessette was beatified in 1982 and canonized in 2010. His Feast Day is January 7 (because January 6 is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany).
St. Brother André never saw the finished St. Joseph’s Oratory, as it took 50 years to complete build. But it is a beautiful monument to St. Joseph. St. Joseph’s Oratory today is still a beautiful place to visit. It is the largest church dedicated to St. Joseph and is still the largest church in Canada.