Message in a Bottle

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Summer 2011
– PDF version –

A friend traveled to Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal in Quebec, Canada last autumn. My religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, commissioned him to journey to the site of the many healings attributed to Saint Andre Bessette, CSC. His task was to photograph the celebrations of Brother Andre’s canonization both in Montreal and in Rome. During his visit to Montreal he photographed pilgrims walking on their knees on the steep steps of the Oratory. He shot people praying in the chapels and gardens and the room where Brother Andre lived. My friend even photographed Brother Andre’s heart that is still enshrined at the Oratory.

When the photojournalist arrived back in Portland, we shared coffee, stories and the photos from his journey. As we sipped coffee at a local coffeehouse, he handed me a white paper sack and told me it was a special gift. I opened the wrinkled bag and took out a bottle of Saint Joseph’s oil from the Oratory’s gift shop. An artist’s sketch in blue, red and white of Saint Joseph carrying a white lily adorns the plastic bottle.

These words appear in several languages on the side of the 500ml container: “Brother Andre often advised those who came to him to rub themselves with some vegetable oil which had been burning in front of the statue of Saint Joseph. Even today, oil used in this manner remains a link with our tradition. It is an expression of faith. It is not the oil itself which cures, but the Lord who hears the prayers of the faithful.”

The unopened bottle of oil still sits on a bookshelf next to my bible in my bedroom. I admit I really do not know how to use it. I am not sure where this oil of devotion fits into the healing ministry of the Church today. In fact, I am deeply confused about many aspects of healing and how we carry on the tradition of Jesus reaching out to the leper, the blind man and the Canaanite woman’s daughter. I firmly believe there is a message contained in the bottle of oil. I just do not know how to get it out of the sealed bottle and into people’s lives.

Many believers question the use of such oil today within worshipping assemblies. Some people associate healing with snake oil salesman and sleight-of-hand trickery of fundamentalist preachers trying to make a living. Many liturgists frown upon such personal devotion because a bishop in the context of the Chrism Mass has not blessed this oil during Holy Week. This oil does not fit into the traditional sacramental life of the Church. This oil goes well beyond the clerical role of anointing the sick and forgiving sins within the seven sacraments of the Church. This bottle of oil used in the tradition of Brother Andre seems far removed from the sacramental, clerical and liturgical norms.

I know I am also not alone in my skepticism about physical, emotional and spiritual healing within the Church today. People are suspicious about healing because first of all we are all powerless over suffering. I have known and observed priests who refuse to pray with people individually because they are afraid to enter into the depths and uncertainty of people’s real suffering. Others are squeamish about body pain, surgeries, bloody accidents, physical abnormalities, paralysis and the fact that suffering itself is uncontrollable. Sacramental rubrics, liturgical rites and decrees from the institutional church cannot control suffering. For many clergy, if suffering cannot be controlled, the best form of healing is to avoid it all together.

I am also suspicious of healing based upon my graduate studies in our liturgical tradition and my training in pastoral and professional skills. The professional minister today is trained to avoid such attempts to heal because it does not fit into any field education requirements or competencies. In many ways the professional model of the church today has drained much of the Spirit’s presence out of any notion that healing happens with vegetable oil, scapulars, personal devotions, holy cards or prepackaged devotions of any kind.

During the lifetime of Brother Andre, the ministry of healing was a prime mission of many religious communities.  Religious communities of men and women in the past set out on horseback in the United States to found and build hospitals, orphanages, and care facilities for anyone who was lost, forgotten, ill or dying. Today the presence of priests, brothers and sisters in institutions of healing has given way to the latest technology and concerns over insurance coverage. Our church has lost much of its personal mission of healing.

I am desperate to find healing today. I simply do not know where to turn to discover answers. I stand daily amid the brutal chaos of people living with severe mental illness. Many people hear voices that tell them to kill themselves, to ignore their medications and to punish themselves. People sit in the rain around our building and cry out in the night. They lash out at passersby and refuse to speak with their counselors who are assigned to our streets.

I pray for healing for people who blame homeless people for being homeless. I want healing for every family so that our gay and lesbian children will not be abused or bullied. Hundreds of children have fled into the woods or the streets in Oregon because of domestic abuse. I lash out in the night to God that young girls are being trafficked in our suburban shopping malls or in upscale grade schools. I am not sure how much more I can take of the young mother diagnosed with breast cancer or the addict that refuses treatment or the honor student who cuts herself.

I realize I cannot control countries at war or how the institutional church treats people. If I can find my way into this bottle of oil, I may be able to focus my belief that God alone heals. I desire healing amidst the shambles of people’s stories and their regrets from the past. I am now realizing the message in the bottle is also for the cynic and the critic.

Hundreds of people came to Brother Andre every day during his ministry. I now sense his frustration about people’s lives. Andre first guided people to stay close the healing sacraments of the Church. However, so often people were not healed. They needed so much more than what he could give them. He reached for the oil that was there at the Saint Joseph statue because that is what was available to him. Brother Andre told some mothers to wash their children in dishwater and or to go to confession. He said all those things because he did not have answers to the depths of people’s suffering and anguish.

There is something in this bottle of oil that frightens me. I must come to terms with God’s healing love in the world that is more potent than my fear and more consoling than the oil from the Saint Joseph statue. God’s healing happens without our permission, rules or guidelines. God does not commit healing power only to the well educated, the immaculately dressed or the clean cut. God’s healing happens amidst the mess, chaos and confusion of everyone trying to figure out how to ease suffering, whether of others or their own.

God healed many people through Brother Andre’s intercession even though Andre was not a priest, not within the confines of the sacramental church.  The oil for so many was simply a reminder of what they already knew but had forgotten in the midst of their pain, that God alone eases suffering, forgives sin and offers new life for the body and the soul.

Someday I will have the courage to open the bottle of oil. I will take the risk of unsealing the bottle and opening my heart. I will risk that my relationship with suffering people allows God to enter and heal everyone beyond my imagining. I will take the step to pray with people upon their request. I will pour out the holy oil and believe in the miracle that Jesus’ passion leads to new life for me and for every person. Someday I will receive the message hidden in the plastic bottle on my bookcase.

Litany for Evening Prayer: Celebration of Saint Andre

Litany for Evening Prayer: Celebration of Saint Andre
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Cantor: Hear us, O God
Response: Hear us, O God (or whatever short sung response works best)

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our communities to the hospitality of Christ Jesus…
To the lost sinner and the illiterate friend…
To the abandoned child and to the aging widow…
To the weary traveler and the teenage prostitute…
To the bashful student and the struggling teacher…
To the hungry stranger and runaway teen…

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our communities to the healing of Christ Jesus…
To people suffering from every addiction…
To people with every incurable disease, illness and affliction…
To our friends, relatives and neighbors longing for reconciliation…
To every religious community that seeks peace and non-violence…
To nations locked in war and violence…

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our communities to the mission of Christ Jesus…
To students seeking a new education…
To people discerning their vocations …
To the renewal of professed religious life and fidelity in marriage…
To the next generation discovering faith and service…
To our missionaries in foreign lands…
To a greater commitment to prayer and love of God…

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our hearts to the love of Christ Jesus…
To the care of Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary…
To the consolation of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows…
To the Cross of Christ, our Only Hope…

Cantor: Hear us, O God
People: Hear us, O God

Cantor: Hear us, O God
People: Hear us, O God

Door Man: St. André Bessette

Originally published by U.S. Catholic, December 2010
– PDF version – Online version –

Brother André Bessette didn’t need fancy degrees to know how to welcome the sick who came to the Holy Cross community. Now, he’s the order of educators’ first saint.

My path to the priesthood, as with all priests in the United States, involved many years of higher education. I earned two degrees from the University of Notre Dame before being ordained a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1983. Later I received yet another master’s degree from Notre Dame. I learned all the appropriate professional skills. I studied the correct rubrics from scholars of liturgical history. The vision of the Second Vatican Council prepared me for what I thought my work would entail.

The education that truly formed me, however, has been learning to pray through my own suffering and the inconsolable pain of others. I am now a student of an uneducated orphan and sickly man, Brother André (Alfred) Bessette, C.S.C., born 30 miles from Montreal in 1845. Ironically, the frail, illiterate brother is our first saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross, a religious order that is best known for our achievements in education.

Brother André dedicated his life to St. Joseph and to people suffering from spiritual and physical illness. He convinced the Holy Cross community in Montreal in the early 1900s to build St. Joseph’s Oratory. Today, the oratory houses the many crutches, canes, and wheelchairs left behind by healed pilgrims who prayed to St. Joseph upon Brother André’s request.

Because of his ill health, members of Holy Cross did not initially want Brother André as a member of the Congregation. His novice master begged the community to allow him to stay because of his intense prayer. He professed vows and was assigned as porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal, the only formal ministry he held his entire life. He began to welcome the sick and the fragile, the ill and the outcast. His door became his entry into people’s deep suffering and isolation. André’s formally educated confreres quickly became displeased with so many sick people congregating around the schoolyard.

Brother André persevered in his devotions. He told people who were ill to pray to St. Joseph, to rub oil on their wounds, to believe in the miracles of Christ Jesus. He experienced God’s healing of thousands of people. He became known as the “miracle worker of Mount Royal.”

Now that I have come to the doors of the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon, I have learned to pray and serve from Brother André’s example. These red steel doors open every day to hundreds of people who cry for help dealing with mental illness or who are consumed with unending loneliness.

Our parish staff and volunteers welcome to our daily hospitality center people struggling to get off drugs, the recently unemployed, and those who have spent their entire adult lives living outside. We welcome people who lash out at others because they cannot heal from their own sexual abuse. We welcome people with gangrene and people who have just been released from jail. Every day we are confronted with our insufficient answers to unsolvable problems.

I arrived here at the red doors of the Downtown Chapel more than eight years ago disillusioned with many aspects of the church. I arrived here in great need of spiritual healing. I turned to Brother André to welcome me, just as he welcomed others in need of healing and consolation in Montreal. Now I experience what André encountered, the inconsolable pain of people. People living in poverty are now my teachers.

Because he could not read, André memorized the Beatitudes and other passages of scripture that offer hope to people in pain. He believed that faith alone was the answer to real human suffering. Confronted with hundreds of people each day waiting to speak with him, André often lost his patience. He was often rude and curt with people who did not want to pray. His curmudgeonly style did not deter people from wanting to be physically touched and emotionally affirmed by God.

I lose my patience as well when I realize in recent years the church has moved away from its healing mission, relinquishing many hospitals, nursing homes, and orphanages. The personal touch of healing has been replaced by large corporations and impersonal technology. At our parish doors, I realize that faith alone can motivate people to give of themselves when other people hurt in so many ways.

Brother André died on January 6, 1937. More than a million pilgrims streamed to Montreal for his funeral. In those days before jet planes, the Internet, and cell phones, the real communication of faith and gratitude spread rapidly among believers.

The Catholic Church canonized Brother André Bessette in Rome on Sunday, October 17, 2010. On that day, I unlocked our red doors in Portland and praised God for André’s example.

Blessing of photographs of Saint Andre

(This litany was prayed at Mass today for the blessing of the relic and images of Saint Andre)

Cantor: Hear us, O God

People: Hear us, O God


Saint Andre of Montreal; open our doors to the hospitality of Christ Jesus …(response)

Open our doors to the lost sinner and the illiterate friend…(response)

Open our doors to the abandoned child and to the abused neighbor…(response)

Open our doors to the weary traveler and the teenage prostitute…(response)

Open our doors to people starving for daily food and friendship…(response)

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our doors to the healing of Christ Jesus…(response)

Open our doors to friends relapsing from heroin, cocaine and alcohol…(response)

Open our doors to people with every incurable disease, illness and affliction…(response)

Open our doors to adult friends living the affects of childhood sexual abuse…(response)

Open our doors to families living outside and surviving under bridges…(response)

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our doors to the hope of Christ Jesus…(response)

Open our doors to people stranded in valleys of undiagnosed mental illness…(response)

Open our doors to our bullied children considered weak and outcast…(response)

Open our doors to neighbors lost in thoughts of suicide…(response)

Open our doors to people jailed because of mental illness and homelessness…(response)

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our hearts to the love of Christ Jesus…(response)

Open our lives to the care of Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary…(response)

Open our suffering to the consolation of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows…(response)

Open our doubt to the Cross of Christ, our only hope…(response)

Cantor: Hear us, O God

People: Hear us, O God

Cantor: Hear us, O God

People: Hear us, O God

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 during weeks when an issue is not printed.

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.


Brother Andre Series: Number Ten

A twenty-something man limped to our front desk one morning to sign up for his routine of coffee, snacks and his monthly allotment of supplies. He gingerly approached the open window breathing heavily, his eyes and face blackened with bruises, his ripped clothing stained with blood and dirt. He requested just the basics of underwear and hygiene products, along with a new shirt and jeans. Our staff member jumped to her feet and asked him what happened. The street-warrior admitted that while sleeping in a doorway he had been beaten by a stoned teenager. He begged the on-duty staff member not to call the police or the ambulance because he had no money for any type of health care.

A middle-aged woman walked shyly into our parish lobby. Her years of severe depression weighed visibly on her rounded shoulders and tired body. She has been unable to find employment lately because of the lingering shadows of low self-esteem. She tries over and over again to feel better about her adult life, occasionally smiling and joining us for Sunday worship. Living in the present moment remains difficult because her childhood emotional and sexual abuse still causes threats of suicide and deep moments of feeling unworthy of life itself.

These raw stories are replicated daily at the Downtown Chapel. People’s lives are so complicated by abusive parents, lingering mental illness and people using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of survival. Some years ago we invited a psychiatrist to help educate our staff on these many issues. He spent several hours deeply listening to us express the concerns of our ministry. He simply reminded us of our true role in people’s lives, to offer hope within community, to offer faith in the midst of suffering.

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to remind us that we cannot fix someone’s abusive past or change their desire to sell their body. However, we can offer people a place of profound faith, of true and honest welcome, of genuine forgiveness and acceptance. We can welcome people when every other agency or center has turned them away. In other words, we can offer people hope.

Brother Andre surfaced hope in people’s lives. Thousands of people lined up to speak with Brother Andre because there was no other place for them to go with their bodily ailments and their weariness. Brother Andre welcomed everyone regardless of their pain. He touched their illnesses with prayer and sent them on their way with new hope. Even when people were not physically healed, they felt a deep sense of God’s tender mercy and love for them.

Brother Andre realized hope comes from embracing the Cross of Christ. “The more you suffer as you follow the Stations of the Cross, the closer you come to Jesus Crucified.” He never wanted to live without trials in his life. “In our prayers, we should not ask to be spared hardship; we should beg for the strength to bear it.” Brother Andre’s example still lives among us. He helps us realize the hope of Christ Jesus at the Downtown Chapel in every person who comes to us in need of love. We live boldly the motto of the Congregation of Holy Cross, “ The Cross is our only hope.”

The canonization of Brother Andre Bessette, CSC will take place on Sunday October 17, 2010 at the Vatican in Rome. Please join us for our Mass celebrating Brother Andre on Sunday October 17, at 10:00am at the Downtown Chapel.

Brother Andre, be our guide!

(Photo: Steve Scardina, St. Joseph Oratory, Montreal)

A Foot in the Door: A Community Modeled after Brother Andre Bessette, CSC

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, October 2010
– PDF version –

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.


Brother Andre Series: Number Nine

I often listen to our student volunteers question their futures. High school students wonder if college is the best solution for future employment. College seniors panic about how to find next year’s job so they can start paying off student loans. As the students spend time at the Downtown Chapel, they begin to realize that faith and service are key ingredients to their future lives and careers. The young volunteers discover from people living in poverty that real relationship and genuine kindness will open many doors to the future.

Many students volunteer in our parish hospitality center searching for a deeper meaning in their lives. These talented people simply want to give their hearts to a real cause, a purpose, to make a difference in the world. Even though they worry about the weak economy, high rates of unemployment, student debt, and even expectations from parents, they simply desire to offer their hearts in service to real people.

Brother Andre simply gave his heart to God. Even though he was illiterate and sickly he chose to listen to the worries of the sick. Even though the Congregation of Holy Cross hesitated to accept Brother Andre, he was always obedient to his superiors. Brother Andre was determined to dedicate his daily life to Saint Joseph, the patron of Canada and the Brothers of Holy Cross. Brother Andre’s compassionate heart was fashioned from his own suffering and his faith strengthened from receiving people on the margins of society.

Brother Andre invited people into prayer as they lined up to speak with him. He envisioned a chapel where people could come in pilgrimage to Saint Joseph and to pray in gratitude to God. On October 19, 1904, the first chapel was officially opened. Because of the large number of people streaming to the chapel for prayer, worship and healing, a new, larger chapel was built by November of 1908. Then in 1914, the Superior General of the Congregation of Holy Cross granted permission for Saint Joseph’s Oratory to be built. The construction took many years and was only completed after Brother Andre’s death.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory stands today in Montreal as a beacon of love and healing for many people. The prayerful setting welcomes thousands of visitors and pilgrims each year. This place of prayer reminds everyone of Brother Andre’s complete dedication to God. Today, Brother Andre’s physical heart is on display at the Oratory. This French custom reminds us that Brother Andre literally gave his heart to the mission of God’s work, to people in need of spiritual, emotional and physical healing.

The students in our daily hospitality center remind me to offer my own prayer and work for the purpose of God’s people. Brother Andre’s story shows us that our searching must rest in God’s love for people in need of hospitality, healing and hope. In faith, we shall all discover our heart’s desire.

Photo: Steve Scardina, (Brother Andre’s heart at Saint Joseph Oratory in Montreal)


Brother Andre Series: Number Eight

I learn a new reliance on God every single day. God teaches me this greater dependence because I do not know where else to turn with people’s overwhelming concerns. I cannot fix a young man who was in recovery from heroin and relapses just before his child is born. A young prostitute sneaks into the chapel to speak with me about the men who control her. An elderly man battling severe mental illness and loneliness confesses to me again in our hospitality center of his ongoing addiction to pornography. The circumstances of people’s lives demand from all of us a deep and unending faith.

Our ministry at the Downtown Chapel invites me into days of unanswerable questions, never-ending emotional turmoil and unsolvable situations. From the lives of people living in poverty, I learn how to trust God and come to terms with the fact that God alone heals. I must believe that there is more to come, that God is not finished with even the most stubborn of personalities. This is the place in ministry that challenges me into a deep and profound holiness.

Brother Andre exuded a real and often harsh holiness. He was often impulsive and certainly not perfect in his dealing with people who needed him the most. He stood on his feet for hours listening to people, and constantly being present to people was hard work for him. Especially as the years passed by and his own health grew precarious he grew more emotionally exhausted from his office hours. However, he never let go of his role to offer people a kind word and to lead them to Saint Joseph and ultimately to the love of Christ.

Brother Andre’s relationship with God and his real humanity grew together in his ministry and with his aging. Father Cousineau, Brother Andre’s Superior, recalls this daily tension, “During the early years of his work, Brother Andre rarely showed any signs of impatience….As he neared the end of his life, especially in the last three or four years, he did indeed express impatience more frequently….Many people, frightened by his ascetic expression or by the abruptness with which he put an end to meaningless conversations, failed to notice that Brother Andre maintained, despite his abrupt demeanor, a facial serenity which was the mirror of his inner peace….His outbursts of impatience were attributable, at least in my opinion, to his old age, to his failing health, and to the weariness his work caused him…”

Brother Andre’s holiness comes from entering into people’s unending physical and emotional suffering. He knew that only God could heal the people who came to him. He became harsh when he understood that healing was possible but the people doubted. He teaches us still in our day to believe in the power of Christ Jesus no matter our pain and uncertainty.