BLESSED ANDRE BESSETTE
1845 – 1937
St. Joseph’s Oratory
If you are ever in the great city of Montreal, Canada be sure to visit the magnificent basilica of St. Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal of that city. Join the millions of pilgrims from all over the world to visit the world’s principal shrine in honor of St. Joseph, the Spouse of the Virgin Mother of God and foster father of Jesus.
It’s hard to believe that this great basilica had its humble beginnings as a simple humble wooden chapel built by an even simpler and more humble lay brother of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal. With only a mere $200 which Frere Andres himself earned by cutting the hair at five cents each of the students at the College of Notre Dame where he was assigned as a mere doorkeeper, sacristan, infirmarian, laundry worker, gardener, messenger, lamplighter, etc., he was able to build this wonderful edifice.
Unbelievably its founder was not a rich man but the son of a lowly carpenter. Alfred Bessette or Frere Andre as he was fondly called was of French parentage in rural Quebec, Canada. Orphaned at the age of 12 he was adopted and tried his hand at farming, being a shoemaker, baker, blacksmith, etc. He even went to the United States where he worked for a few years. But he never seemed to hold a job for long because of his poor health and frailty which dogged him all his life.
Becomes a Holy Cross Brother
Thankfully this did not stop him from spending long periods praying. So when he returned to Canada he decided to apply as a brother at the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Bringing with him a letter from his pastor which said, “I am sending you a saint for your congregation,” he was admitted as a novice.
Once again he almost didn’t make it because towards the end of his year’s novitiate they were thinking of rejecting him again because of his weakness and frailty. Begging the local bishop to help he told him how convinced he was that God really wanted him to be a Holy Cross brother. Because of Bishop Bourget’s intervention and insistence Brother Andre was allowed to make his religious profession on August 22, 1872.
He was sent to the brother’s Notre Dame College in Montreal. Because of his lack of skills and because he could hardly read or write because of his erratic schooling due to his poor health he was assigned all kinds of menial tasks such as janitor, sacristan, laundry worker, messenger, etc., but foremost of which was being doorkeeper. Frere Andre humorously said of his job, “When I joined this community the superiors showed me the door and I remained there 40 years.”
Everyone grew to love this kind and helpful doorkeeper. Students, parents and visitors alike would all seek his advice, prayers, help and especially healing. By rubbing on their afflicted parts some of the oil which he had collected from the lamp hanging before the statue of St. Joseph in the college chapel Andre was able to help them. Or sometimes he would massage men (not women) with a St. Joseph medal wrapped in cloth.
It is no wonder that people would come in droves asking his help. But this humble brother would constantly tell them, “It is St. Joseph who cures, I am only his little dog.” Some day the saint will be honoured in a special way on Mount Royal, the hill above the college.
Ever since a child Andre had developed a great devotion to St. Joseph. He would spend long hours before a little status of St. Joseph which he had put on his window sill facing Mount Royal.
For many years the Holy Cross authorities had tried unsuccessfully to buy land on Mount Royal. One day Brother Andre and others climbed the steep hill and there planted medals of St. Joseph. Suddenly and surprisingly the owners yielded.
The Building of the Oratory
When Andre asked permission to build a small chapel in honor of St. Joseph (to whom the congregation itself had a great devotion) he was granted it on the condition that he could not incur any debt with the project.
So gathering all the coins he had saved over the years he used the $200 as nucleus money to build a small wooden chapel. Of course everyone helped either in money or labor.
As the donations came in Andre was able to expand the chapel several times and its popularity grew as well. Finally in 1917 using the donations from the thousands of people that came Andre was able to build a crypt church able to seat 1,000 people. Plans were made to even build a basilica over it.
However in 1931 the money ran out and construction was delayed for several years due to the Depression. So somebody said, “Put a statue of St. Joseph in the middle. If he wants a roof over his head, he’ll get it.” Got it he did but it took 50 years to build the magnificent Oratory on Mount Royal.
It now houses the mortal remains of Andre Besset, St Joseph’s most ardent devotee who unfortunately died in 1937 years before the grand minor basilica was completed. But the standing pile of crutches, canes and braces are testament of Frere Andre’s work through his beloved St. Joseph. The sickly boy died at 92 years old!
By the time he died the frail boy who could never hold a job for long needed a staff of four secretaries to answer the eight thousand letters he received annually.
He was declared Blessed in 1982 by Pope John Paul II.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
BL ANDRE BESSETTE
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – p 77
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I – pp 24 – 25
Saint Companions – pp 20 -22
Saints for Our Time – pp 29 – 30
Saint of the Day – pp 9 – 11
Voices of the Saints – pp 712 – 713
Saints of the Roman Calendar – pp 9 – 10
Saints for Our Times – pp 9 – 13