Healing doorkeeper, Holy Cross brother, to become a saint

by Ed Langlois,
Catholic Sentinel – October 13, 2010

In Montreal, he doggedly established a spectacular shrine to St. Joseph and eschewed praise as, one by one, an estimated 10,000 sick people experienced healing at his touch. A million mourners attended his funeral in 1937, despite frigid temperatures and sleet.

In Portland, a free Friday night café for those down on their luck is named for him and he is depicted in a stained glass window in Portland’s cathedral.

André Bessette, a sickly and humble Holy Cross brother, will be recognized as a saint Sunday at St. Peter Basilica in Rome. A hospitable man who could barely read, he’ll be the first person canonized from the Congregation of Holy Cross, known for its prowess in education, including the University of Notre Dame and the University of Portland.

Pope John Paul said of him: “In each age the Holy Spirit raises up such humble witnesses of the Gospel, who turn things topsy-turvy.”

Brother André will be the first male saint from Canada.

“What an amazing model he offers our modern world about the importance of relying on God rather than our own powers,” says Holy Cross Father William Beauchamp, president of the University of Portland.

Born Alfred Bessette Aug. 9, 1845, near Montreal, he was one of 12 children. His father died when he was 9 and his mother died when he was 12. He suffered from a chronic stomach ailment that kept him out of school and often without work. When he could, the diminutive young man toiled at U.S. textile mills and on farms.

When he entered the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1870 after initial rejection, his childhood parish priest sent a letter to the novice master saying, “I am sending a saint to your congregation.”

For 40 years, Brother André served as hardworking doorman and barber at Notre Dame College, the community’s secondary school in Montreal. There, he developed and spread devotion to St. Joseph.

His biographers recount tales of crippled rheumatics healed and fever-stricken schoolboys made suddenly well, often aided by “St. Joseph’s oil,” which Brother André rubbed on wounds and sick limbs after burning it before a statue of the saint.

Thousands upon thousands of regular people in need came to him and he welcomed them all. School officials built him a chapel across the road to deflect some of the hubbub.

Meanwhile, Brother André wore his clothes until they were threadbare and when donors gave him money, he always turned it over to superiors.

“He didn’t want to be brilliant or have a great job,” says Holy Cross Father George Bernard, a retired theology professor and former vice president at the University of Portland. “He wanted to be a servant of all the servants. He is an amazing example of what Christ wants us to be.”

Father David Tyson, superior of the Indiana Province of Holy Cross priests and former UP president, says Brother André did everything and anything that was needed, from cleaning the floors to fixing shoes, from doing students’ laundry to cutting hair.

“What an example of prayer in action, of active service to others as the most eloquent and powerful prayer of all,” Father Tyson says.

“Bother André has always been a great example of humility for me, especially in accepting his illnesses and struggles to respond to the needs of so many,” says Holy Cross Father John Donato, associate vice president for student life at UP. “I hope as the first saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross he will inspire us all to a simpler life, humbler and full of trust that God does provide for us in amazing ways.”

The Oratory of St. Joseph, which Brother André founded in 1904 on the slopes of Mount Royal, continues to be visited by millions of pilgrims each year. He is buried there, his tomb marked in Latin: “Pauper Servus et Humilis” — “poor and humble servant.”

“In recognizing the holiness of Brother André, the church is also affirming, among other things, his ministry of hope and hospitality which I consider basic virtues of Holy Cross,” says Father Robert Antonelli, the University of Portland archivist and a spiritual mentor to many young members of the congregation.

Brother André could be kindly but also testy, especially when someone tried to shower him in praise for the healings. He always gave God and St. Joseph the credit and referred to himself as a mere handyman, or the “wire” that transmits the good works.

Old photos show piles of crutches left in the oratory, which began small but grew into one of the largest houses of worship in the world.

Cures are still attributed to Brother André’s intercession. Several from the past decade were studied by doctors and affirmed during the process of naming him a saint.

Holy Cross Brother Charles McBride, who works in communications at the brothers’ Notre Dame headquarters, hopes Brother André’s story will speak to young men worldwide. The congregation has already seen brisk growth in west Africa, Bangladesh and India. Brother Charles does not predict an uptick of Canadian and U.S. vocations, but he’s a man of hope.

For the wider church, at a time when family life is on shaky ground, Brother André’s devotion to St. Joseph could be timely.

“He is the right man for the right time,” Brother Charles says.

Brother André is important to many lay Catholics who collaborate with the Congregation of Holy Cross.

“It’s yet again an example where an ordinary person who really opens himself to the will of God is then able to do things that most of us recognize as being beyond what ordinary people should be able to do,” says Paul Myers, director of the health center at the University of Portland.

The Downtown Chapel, a Portland parish led by Holy Cross priests, models its service after Brother André, opening the doors daily to the needs of neighbors, most of whom are homeless and poor.

“I continue to be amazed at the stamina that Brother André had in his ministry, spending entire days listening and praying with people who were desperate for hope and healing,” says Andrew Noethe, pastoral associate at the parish. “Brother André was placed at the doorway of inconsolable suffering, and offered the only thing that he could — his uncompromisable faith.”

Also to be canonized on Oct. 17 in Rome are:

• Sister Mary MacKillop, 1842-1909, to become Australia’s first saint and founder of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
• Father Stanislaw Soltys Kazimierczyk, a Polish-born member of the Canons Regular of the Lateran, who lived 1433-1489. He was famous as a preacher and confessor.
• Sister Juana Josefa Cipitria Barriola of Spain. She died in 1912 and was the founder of the Daughters of Jesus.
• Sister Giulia Salzano, the Italian founder of the Catechetical Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; she died in 1929.
• Sister Camilla Battista Varano, an Italian Poor Clare who lived 1458-1524.

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