The only outside doors to our parish building symbolize welcome and hospitality to our neighborhood in downtown Portland, Oregon. Members of our pastoral staff and volunteers tell stories of homeless people recommending the “red doors” to other people living on the streets. Many among the urban poor people in our neighborhood do not realize we are a Roman Catholic parish, but the bright red doors are known by everyone as the place to receive many of the essentials of life.
People queue up to receive clothing once a month or a laundry voucher once a week from our daily hospitality center. Some residents of the single-room occupancy hotels enter our doors to seek money for non-narcotic prescription medications, or stand in line for a flu shot clinic. Others wait at our entrance for coffee and donated food, excess from local restaurants and grocery stores. Some homeless women may sleep at our red doors during the night. Some drug dealers may urinate on our doors during any hour of the day. One local newspaper even shared a picture of someone who had vomited on a competitor’s newspaper at the entrance to our building. Our doors were then named the “Best Place to Puke” in Old Town, Portland, Oregon.
These sacred doors also lead to the chapel where we celebrate Eucharist every day. When we celebrate Eucharist we all realize the importance of our community so people may find hospitality and healing. Last February we announced to our Sunday assembly that Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, CSC will be canonized in Rome on October 17, 2010. The congregation applauded and cheered. Nearly everyone here knows that our community is a community that Brother Andre helps build.
I was standing at our open doors after that Mass and one of our parishioners came up to our pastor and said, “This is where we find Brother Andre, at these doors, in this community!” Indeed, we rely on the intercession of Blessed Brother Andre, because each day we are faced with undying suffering, with questions no one can solve and with ingrained pain that has not healed for generations.
I remember when I first stepped through our steel and glass threshold. I was overwhelmed by the body odor that had clung to the inside of the building. There is no pine-scented chemical that clears away such an odor. I do not even notice that smell anymore after nearly nine years at the parish. There are so many more important aspects of people’s lives to consider.
Blessed Brother Andre, CSC was a member of my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross. He died on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1937. His service to people long ago in need of healing, comfort and consolation continues in our parish as we welcome people living outside or who do not know where to turn because of their mental illness or in their inability to find sufficient health care.
I do not look to Brother Andre for simple solutions to the problems we face at our door. However, his life tells a tale of great faith and dedication. Alfred (Andre) Bessette was born thirty miles from Montreal, Quebec, in Canada on August 9, 1845, the eighth of twelve children. He was always sickly. His mother instilled in him a great love of prayer and dedication to Christ and a special loyalty to Saint Joseph.
Alfred grew up in poverty, especially after his parents died. As an orphan he never finished school. He was illiterate but memorized many passages from Scripture, especially the Passion narratives of Christ. The superiors in the Congregation of Holy Cross did not want to accept Alfred into the community because of his frail health and lack of education. A local pastor, Father Andre Provencal, convinced the Holy Cross superiors to accept Alfred Bessette as a member. He added a note saying, “I am sending you a saint.”
It was through great prayer and the help of friends that Alfred became Brother Andre. He desired a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience. His sole assignment within the community was to serve as the Porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. His ministry at the door of the college became his path toward love and holiness. He never imagined or dreamed how his life would change or how others would respond to him.
Almost immediately, people were drawn to Brother Andre. He told many who were sick to ask Saint Joseph for help, or to attend Mass. He anointed the sick with special oil found in a lamp near the Saint Joseph statue. He rubbed people’s wounds with a blessed medal of the saint. People were cured of many ailments, diseases and sufferings. Many people began leaving their crutches, canes and prostheses at the college. Brother Andre believed strongly that God’s healing was available for every person surviving poverty.
Some members of the Congregation of Holy Cross criticized Brother Andre because of his ministry of healing and his devotions. Parents at the college feared that sick people would get too close to their children. Brother Andre never saw himself as a healer nor was he concerned in the slightest about his reputation. Andre recognized that healing happened not through him alone, but because people believed in the works of Christ and the intercession of Saint Joseph.
Several years ago a young Jesuit novice entered through our red doors to volunteer in our hospitality center. He noticed Brother Andre’s image hanging on the wall. The novice immediately recognized the image and told us that Brother Andre was his great-great-uncle. He told us a story of a relative going to see Brother Andre. She stood for hours in a long line. Finally she got the opportunity to hold Brother Andre’s hand and tell him that she was a relative from the United States. He told her to move along; his time was for people who really needed him. This story has stayed with their family for years. When relating the story, his relatives told everyone that Brother Andre was a curmudgeon, a cranky old guy who did lots of good things.
Indeed, Andre did not have time for people who were merely curious about him. His single-minded devotion to suffering people was evident well beyond the borders of Canada. He became friends with many people who believed in him and his life was rich with friendships even when he was exhausted from speaking with the thousands of people every week that wanted to see him.
I continue to learn much from the small-framed, pious man who was poor, orphaned and homeless. Our shared religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, is best known in the United States for higher education among the privileged. We are priests and brothers, educators in the faith, known for outstanding college football and living comfortable lives. That the frail, illiterate doorkeeper and barber, Brother Andre will become our community’s first official saint, is a great paradox. I pray that we all have the courage to understand his life and celebrate his sainthood.
The poor believed in Andre because he too was poor. He did not see his religious life as an opportunity to escape from poverty or from hard work. Andre’s hospitality was a lived example of Jesus’ desire to run after the one lost sheep even when he was exhausted and afraid. Christ’s command to search diligently for the lost coin is seen in Andre’s acceptance of people. Jesus’ request to ask for what you need, knock on the door with faith and seek always was the total life of Brother Andre.
I am challenged by Andre’s legacy as I stand at our parish doors. I am not economically poor and my faith often wavers from hearing stories of traumas I cannot heal. My greatest poverty comes in my sheer loneliness and deep sadness that I cannot heal the abuse people have suffered as children. I cannot mend their horrific memories. I do not have the power to repair people’s ability to keep a job. I possess no answers when people weep because they do not have love or intimacy in their adult lives. I have only the profound example of Brother Andre as he lived Christ’s invitation to welcome people into community.
People often bend my ear at our parish doors, arguing that if the homeless would just get jobs they would not be a burden on society. I have not read any description of Andre yelling and screaming at passersby, but I often want to shout at people when I hear their judgments. People come to us abused, addicted, and mentally ill and possessing no self-esteem. In this economic recession even the most educated and the most beautiful find employment difficult to attain. We welcome people living in poverty, following Brother Andre’s example, and do not blame people for the struggles and challenges of their lives.
Many church doors are still locked and some of our communities remain inaccessible to certain people within our Church and society. Some doors are barred to children of gay and lesbian parents. Many doors are closed to pregnant teens. Doors are bolted shut to recovering drug addicts who try to heal from multiple abortions. Other doors are closed to the elderly who seek help after being abused. There often seems to be no one on the other side of parish doors to help in times of deep depression, bouts of lashing out from mental illness and landing in jail or even for former clergy seeking help with alcohol addiction.
These are the parish doors that worry me, that keep me awake during the night. Our answers rest in the models of service and hospitality that Brother Andre still shows the Church. I must believe that Christ’s love is the cure for such loneliness and despair among so many people living on the margins of our culture and Church.
Before I open our church doors, I must become vulnerable to God. As I step into the unknown of people’s lives, I remember that only God can reconcile the broken, heal the sick and feed the hungry. There are days when I cannot come to God with anything but fear and a deep knot in my chest. On these days I try to be counted among the disciples who scurried to a dark room, locked the doors and wondered what to do next. Then I search for the words the resurrected Christ offered to them and now offers to everyone, “Peace be with you.” In these words I turn toward Andre’s legacy of living each day in deep prayer and rich satisfaction of the peace and joy offered by God alone.
I admire Brother Andre because he lived his life with passion. He lived an utterly simple life. Other people had to force him to wear a warmer coat and to replace his worn-out shoes. I am deeply changed by this man who simply lived what he believed, that the love of God would be enough for him. God’s love, as it turned out, was more than enough for him.
Every Friday night our parish doors are opened for a meal of soup and sandwiches. People eat seated in chairs stretched along the sidewalk after receiving the meal in our small lobby. We name this soup line “Brother Andre Café.” Simple food becomes the message of hospitality and an extension of the Holy Eucharist. We offer this community event even in the pouring rain or when few volunteers come downtown to help. We welcome people from local low-income housing apartments and people who live under Portland bridges. This is people’s Friday night out, a time to relax on plastic chairs and converse with new volunteers and friends. Brother Andre’s spirit is with us even in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Through Andre’s dedication, hard work and endless prayer, the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal, Quebec in Canada, stands today as a place of devotion and prayer for many pilgrims from around the world. When Brother Andre died, over a million people fought the frigid weather and deep snow to get a brief moment to view his earthly remains. I truly believe that Brother Andre Bessette, CSC still opens doors for people surviving poverty and living with the consequences of physical pain, mental illness and devastating emotional disease.
Saint Andre of Montreal, pray for us and welcome us home.