Saint Andre Bessette
By Nancy Paiva
Born on August 9, 1845 in a village of St. Gregoire outside of Montreal. Alfred Bessette was the eighth child in what would become a family of twelve, to Alfred and Clothilde, very religious French Canadian farmers. Alfred was born a very sick baby and his father baptized him immediately! His lack of physical strength and health remained his whole life yet he lived to be 91 years old. His father died when he was six and his mother struggled to raise 12 children. She also got very sick and had to give up her children for adoption, all but the feeblest one, Alfred. They went to live with his mother’s sister. Alfred became very close to his mother but 2 short years after his fathers death she also died. Before she died, she summoned her children to her bedside and said “ From the height of Heaven, my dear little ones, I will watch over you”, Years later Andre would say of her: “I rarely pray for her, but often I pray to her”. He tried doing all kinds of work; farming, baking and cobbler work, but he was too frail and weak to stick with anything. He also was too sickly to go to school.
A few years later he went to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to look for work. But unable to read or write he soon returned to Canada and was encouraged by his parish priest Fr. Provencal to join the Holy Cross congregation as a Brother. Andre relished being united with God in prayer, and in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, absorbed for hours at a time. It was during these times that he started his deep long conversations with St. Joseph. Andre met with the Holy Cross Brothers and was impressed by them. Their black habit with Roman collar, cincture and medal of Saint Joseph, their manly bearing and devotion all attracted him. But he was nervous, he was still illiterate and they were very educated. But Fr. Provencal made him feel better telling him that they needed janitors and manual laborers as well. The Brothers were not too sure they wanted him, although they never told him so! Finally in 1870 he made up his mind to join if they would have him.
The novice Master Fr. Gastineau gave him a great welcome. Perhaps he was expecting much of the new novice because he had received a letter from Fr. Provencal that said “ I am sending a Saint to your congregation”. During the novitiate he did well Spiritually and also learned how to read and read with great fervor. The Holy Scripture, I’m of Christ, and lines of the saints. He also memorized “The Passion of our Lord” as contained in each of the 4 Gospels as well as “The Sermon on the Mount”. As it was his health was not good and there was talk of his dismissal. Desperate to save his vocation and despite his timidity he knocked on the Bishops door and once inside threw himself at the Bishops feet. My only ambition is to serve God in small tasks. The Bishop touched deeply by Andre’s humility said don’t be afraid my child. You are to be admitted to the religious profession. Brother Andre was professed August 22, 1872. His 1st assignment was as a porter at college Notre Dame in Montreal. In 1874 he made his final vows at the age of 28.
For the next 40 years he contented himself with humble tasks of welcoming visitors, cleaning, and running errands. He put himself at the service of everyone including students whom he would tend to when they were ill. Word of his holiness spread. Many visitors came to ask Bother Andre to pray for their ill relatives. He had developed a life of deep prayer and penance. People came from great distances to beg for prayer believing that he possessed great healing powers. He developed a reputation as a miracle worker. Brother Andre insisted it was not he who was gifted to heal but Saint Joseph patron of the Province of Quebec. He would give the people medals of Saint Joseph and oil from a lamp that burned before the great foster father of Jesus. One day as Andre was scrubbing the parlor floor a lady came to see him. She was afflicted with rheumatism so bad, that she could only walk with 2 men supporting her arms. I want you to heal me she said. Not looking up from the floor he said to the men supporting her “let her walk” the woman walked out unassisted. Another time someone related the story of a young couple with an infant diagnosed as having a brain tumor. Upon hearing this Brother Andre took the baby into his arms gently rubbing the afflicted infants head. The moving scene of the aged Brother caressing the infirmed baby was more than just a tender moment. The child, it was later discovered, was completely cured.
In the midst of this entire goings on, the Brothers heart became fixed on one holy ambition. Building a shrine to Saint Joseph in Montreal. When the Holy Cross Congregation purchased some land across from them Brother Andre put a statue of St. Joseph in a little cave on his chosen site. Placing a bowl in front of the statue he planned on collecting alms from St. Joseph’s petitioners, which would be used to build a chapel. He also made small sums of money from cutting hair of the students at the school. The determination that our brother had to build the Shrine to St. Joseph took him well beyond the confines of Montreal to find the needed money. He went to cities in the U.S. and Canada in this holy pursuit. In these forays he made rounds of factories to beg for contributions from their workers. He built the 1st small Chapel in 1904, continuing to upgrade as funds became available. To put it simply what started out as a 15 – 18 foot Chapel in 1904 became a minor Basilica in 1955 and was completed interior and all in 1966. Today it is the largest church in the world dedicated to Saint Joseph. For Brother Andre the cross of Christ, the love of Christ, the love of Saint Joseph was not just a devotion, it formed and shaped his life and all those he came in contact with.
Brother Andre Bessette died on January 6, 1937 at the age of 91 years old. Pope John Paul II beatified him in May 1982. Pope Benedict XVI canonized him October 17, 2010.
Brother Andre Bessette, throughout his whole lifetime of poor health and pain he was committed to helping the poor and afflicted with gentle love, kindness and prayer. What an example of Gods goodness he is to me. What an example to us all!