About Brother André Bessette, C.S.C.
Brother André was born Alfred Bessette in 1845 in Quebec. Alfred was orphaned by the time he was 12 and received little formal education. As a young man, he spent time in New England working at different farms, factories and trades, but he eventually returned to Quebec. In 1870 he entered the Holy Cross Novitiate, where he took the name André.
In 1871, Brother André Bessette was assigned as the doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, a post he held until 1909. Brother André often prayed with the sick whom he met at the door, usually instructing them to pray to St. Joseph. Soon many miraculous healings were attributed to his prayers, and large crowds came to see him.
Brother André always had a strong devotion to St. Joseph, and in 1900 he received permission to raise money for a shrine to Jesus' foster father. This shrine became St. Joseph's Oratory. The first shelter was constructed in 1904, and was enlarged in 1912. In 1909 he was assigned full-time as the caretaker of the Oratory. He spent his days seeing sick people who came to the Oratory, and he spent his evenings visiting the sick who could not make it to the Oratory. By the 1920's the Oratory hosted over one million pilgrims annually, and hundreds of cures were attributed to his prayers every year.
Brother André Bessette, C.S.C. died in Montreal on January 6, 1937. It is estimated that over a million people visited his body outside the Oratory during the week following his death. He was beatified on May 23, 1982, and he will be canonized on October 17, 2010.
Brother André and the Vocation of Holy Cross
Alfred Bessette’s path to the Congregation of Holy Cross was fostered by a pastor who had known the frail and faith-filled orphan. Having returned to Quebec in 1867, this hard-working manual laborer had the support of his childhood parish priest in a desire to enter the religious life.
The priest sent Alfred to a nearby community of Holy Cross brothers with a letter telling its superior, “I am sending you a saint”.
The Congregation, founded by Blessed Basil Moreau in 1837 in the town of Sainte-Croix (Holy Cross), France, had rapidly become an international presence, with priests, brothers, and sisters all counted among the Holy Cross family.
They had become active in many countries, including Canada and the United States, the latter being the place where Rev. Edward Sorin and a cadre of Holy Cross brothers founded the University of Notre Dame in 1842.
The brothers and priests of Holy Cross still today share a common life, common prayer, and participation in common works.
Devotion to St. Joseph
All members of the Holy Cross family look to three heavenly patrons whom Father Moreau (now Blessed Basil Moreau, beatified in 2007) had invoked in founding the Congregation. Along with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of Our Lady of Sorrows, Saint Joseph continues to be invoked as a patron, especially for the brothers.
Brother André Bessette had a special devotion to Saint Joseph. He presented many sick visitors with medals of the saint and anointed them with oil that came from an oil lamp burning in the College’s chapel next to a Saint Joseph statue.
In giving this oil to the sick, Brother André always insisted that the hoped-for healing was the work of Saint Joseph and not himself. He promised to pray to God through Saint Joseph’s intercession.
Brother André Bessette's approach to prayer was marked by simplicity and directness. “When praying,” he said, “one speaks to God as one speaks to a friend.” He prayed for those who visited him and also meditated intensely on the Passion of Christ.
He urged others to pray with confidence and perseverance, while remaining open to God’s will. He admonished people to begin their path to healing through commitments to faith and humility, through confession and a return to the sacraments. He encouraged the sick to seek a doctor’s care. He saw value in suffering that is joined to the sufferings of Christ.
Ministry as Door Keeper
Healings were frequent, and visitors always found solace and grace in Brother André Bessette’s readiness to listen to their concerns. He allowed himself to be fully present to the sadness of others but retained a fundamentally joyful nature and good humor. Nevertheless, at times he was seen weeping along with his visitors as they recounted their sorrows.
Brother André's principal work for many years was as a porter at the College of Notre Dame. He answered the door and did numerous other manual tasks in a spirit of humility, obedience, and love for others. Often his hospitality entailed spending much of the day receiving and consoling he poor and sick, as well as visiting homes and hospitals. Word spread quickly when many of those with whom he prayed were healed.
The growing crowds coming to visit him prompted his superiors to relocate his visitations to a small trolley station across the street.
He was becoming known as a miracle worker, but Brother André insisted all the more, "I am nothing...only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of Saint Joseph."
Crowds at the trolley station became unmanageable, so a small chapel was built nearby. Construction begain in 1904, and two expansions followed in the next several years.
St. Joseph's Oratory
Brother André Bessette’s hope for a more substantial shrine to Saint Joseph, located on Mount Royal above the city of Montreal, stimulated large and small donations from many of the people whose lives had been touched by the holy man.
The Congregation of Holy Cross already owned property that would be suitable. Construction on what would become known as Saint Joseph’s Oratory began in 1914. A crypt church seating 1,000 was completed in 1917. The grand basilica towering above that church took another 50 years to complete, and St. André died in 1937 without seeing that completion.
Brother André Bessette, C.S.C. was entombed at the church, and, with his body lying in state, more than a million people climbed the slope of Mount Royal to honor him. Today, the Oratory is a world-famous pilgrimage destination, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year. Those visitors have included Pope John Paul II. It is the world’s largest shrine dedicated to Saint Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and patron of laborers and families.