The holy doorkeeper

by Most Rev. John Vlazny,
Archbishop of Portland,
Catholic Sentinel – October 13, 2010

On Sunday, Oct. 17, at the Vatican Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize six saints. The announcement of these canonizations took place last February in the Vatican. One of them is André Bessette, a religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross, who was born and who died in Canada. The others are Blessed Stanislaw Soltys, a 15th century priest from Poland, St. Candida Maria of Jesus, a Spanish foundress of the Congregation of Daughters of Jesus, 1845 -1912, Blessed Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Australian founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, 1842 – 1909, and two Italian women, Julia Salzano, founder of the Congregation of the Catechetical Sisters of the Sacred Heart, 1846 -1929, and, Camilla Battista Da Varano, founder of the Monastery of St. Clare in Camerino, 1458 – 1524.

The canonization of André Bessette is a special moment in the history of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Brother André will be the first saint of this community which serves here in the archdiocese at the University of Portland, Holy Cross Church, Holy Redeemer Church and St. Vincent de Paul Church (Downtown Chapel). The founder of Holy Cross, Father Basil Moreau, was beatified in 2007. Brother André is highly acclaimed among the French-Canadian people and has been credited with thousands of reported miraculous healings. He was beatified back in 1982 and Pope Benedict approved his cause for sainthood on Feb. 19 of this year.

Brother André was orphaned by the time he was 12 years old. He lived with an aunt and uncle after the death of his parents and was not a healthy child. He wandered from job to job and had little education. We know that he worked in a variety of occupations, a tinsmith, a blacksmith, a baker, a shoemaker and even a wagon driver. He was a very spiritual young man. He prayed and embraced many penitential practices. He lived in the United States for a short time but returned to Canada when the Canadian Confederation was formed in 1867.
His pastor recommended Brother André to the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He said to the superior, “I’m sending you a saint.” He was eventually accepted, in spite of his poor health, and was given the task of porter (doorman) at Notre Dame College in Quebec. For 40 years he performed this task as well as many other menial services. Brother Andre had a special devotion to St. Joseph. He loved to visit the sick and recommended they pray to St. Joseph. He became intent upon having a chapel built in honor of the foster father of Jesus. Eventually, in 1924, the construction of a basilica named St. Joseph’s Oratory was begun, thanks to Brother Andre’s persistence. Brother André died in 1937 at age 91 and his body now lies in a tomb underneath the St. Joseph Oratory’s main chapel.

The members of the Holy Cross community are understandably greatly enthused about the canonization of one of their confreres. A delegation from the University of Portland will be present in Rome when Pope Benedict declares him a saint of the church. The Holy Cross community is typically associated with the ministry of Catholic education. In that sense Brother André was not typical. He has been described as “largely illiterate,” but it was his gracious spirit of hospitality, his kindness, practical advice and spiritual guidance that made him highly renowned. St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal where Brother André is entombed, attracts some two million pilgrims every year. When the news of his canonization was announced last February, Father David Tyson, CSC, provincial superior of the Indiana Province, stated, “It seems wonderfully apt and instructive that the first Holy Cross saint was a man who insisted, sometimes testily, that ‘to serve is sweeter than to be served.’”

Catholics are not as well acquainted with brothers as they are with priests and sisters. Brothers are consecrated religious who make vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, like the religious sisters with whom many of us are acquainted, but they do not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. The Holy Cross Congregation explains the vocation of a religious brother this way, “The vocation of a religious brother is complete in and of itself, professed in and lived through his vows and his dedication to prayer, community and service.” The founder of the Congregation, Blessed Basil Moreau, dedicated the religious brothers to the patronage of St. Joseph. Hence, Brother André’s devotion to St. Joseph is not surprising. Brothers, like their female counterparts in religious life, commit themselves to growth in holiness. In the Holy Cross community, many of them are indeed educators, like many of the priests, but others serve in different ways, as did Brother André.

A visit to the Oratory of St. Joseph is an undertaking worth the consideration of every Catholic in North America. In fact, the Oratory of St. Joseph is North America’s most prominent pilgrimage site. More than one million people attended Brother André’s funeral back in 1937. Thousands of crutches belonging to people cured through his intercession hang on the walls of the oratory.

Father Ronald Raab, CSC, a priest at Portland’s Downtown Chapel, wrote an article about Brother André entitled “Saint Doorkeeper” in the September/October 2010 issue of Celebrate magazine. It is available on the CSC website and I encourage you to read it. Brother André’s work among the poor serves as an inspiration for the clergy, religious and laity who serve the poor at our Downtown Chapel. An image of Brother André can be found among the stained glass windows in our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception here in Portland. Father Raab thinks he looks a bit too healthy and robust in stained glass when compared with the reality of his appearance during his life. But to those who serve the poor in downtown Portland, as Father Raab observes, this “holy doorkeeper still lives among God’s poor.”

Brother André’s feast is celebrated each year on Jan. 6. That was the date of his death at 91 years of age. His humility was evident in his reaction to the acclaim he received in life because of the power of healing attributed to him As he once stated, “It is St. Joseph who cures. I am only his little dog.” This man who could scarcely read or write was a gift from God for the poor. It is my sincere prayer that we here in the church of Portland will be a similar gift for the needy among us as well. St. André Bessette, pray for us.

Archbishop John Vlazny writes columns that appear at CatholicSentinel.org during weeks when an issue is not printed.

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