Blessed Andre Bessette (Feastday January 6 )

January 3, 1998
Brother John Raymond

The birth of a sixth child, Alfred, on August 9, 1845 in a village east of Montreal hardly caused a stir. Yet, this unknown, shy child would be the instrument used by God to build the biggest church dedicated to the foster father of Jesus, the Oratory of St. Joseph on Mount Royale. It was the fruition of a dream he had of such a church as a young man. Who would have guessed such a destiny would come from his humble beginnings? Isaac his father was a poor carpenter (like St. Joseph). When Alfred was still young his father died leaving his mother Clothilde to raise ten children. Six years later, she also died. The children were dispersed among relatives. The severe pains in Alfred's stomach that plagued him his whole life and his inability to read or write made his uncle decide not to send Alfred to school. Instead, he arranged for his apprenticeship as a shoemaker. After working hard at this trade he then switched to working at a baker's shop. At fifteen Alfred worked as a blacksmith. At twenty he left Canada and worked three years in New England alternating between work on farms and in factories. He then returned to Canada to live with relatives.

From early childhood Alfred had kept in contact with the pastor of the church where he had made his First Holy Communion, Saint-Cesaire. This priest had instilled a great devotion to Saint Joseph in the boy. Early on he had made up his mind to imitate this saintly worker. Alfred also had a deep devotion to the Passion of Our Lord. All his life he engaged willingly in hard labor. On his return to Canada his pastor friend told Alfred that he had a religious vocation and encouraged him to join a teaching order called the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which he did in 1870.

After his vows Alfred, now called Brother Andre, was sent to Notre Dame College in Montreal (a school for boys age seven to twelve) to work as the porter. There his responsibilities were to answer the door, to welcome guests, find the people they were visiting, wake up the students and deliver mail. Brother Andre joked later, "At the end of my novitiate, my superiors showed me the door, and I stayed there for forty years."

In 1904, Brother Andre asked the Archbishop of Montreal if he could build a chapel to Saint Joseph on the mountain near the college. The Archbishop gave him permission to build what he had money for. Brother Andre took the few hundred dollars he had collected for this project and built a small wooden shelter only fifteen feet by eighteen feet. He kept collecting money. Despite financial troubles, Brother Andre never lost faith or devotion. He had started to build a basilica on the mountain but the Depression interfered. At ninety years old he told his co-workers to place a statue of St. Joseph in the unfinished, unroofed basilica. He was so ill he had to be carried up the mountain to see the statue in its new home. Brother Andre died soon after on January 6, 1937. He didn't live to see the work on the basilica completed.

After a day's work, Brother Andre spent many hours visiting the sick and the elderly. Thousands of people visited him also. He cured many, attributing it to Saint Joseph. So many people came to him that they disturbed the college where he worked. So they moved him to a train station. Even there the crowds became too large. So finally he moved to the small chapel to Saint Joseph he had built before the erection of the basilica. Often Brother Andre would suggest to the sick to pray a novena to Saint Joseph, rub themselves with the oil from the lamps burning in front of the Saint's statue or wear a medal of the Saint.

Brother Andre left us with this piece of advice, "It is not necessary to have been well educated, to have spent many years in college, to love the good God. It is sufficient to want to do so generously." And Brother Andre did!