On October 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Holy Cross’ first saint, Br. André Bessette, C.S.C. Known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal,” St. André — who battled sickness for much of his own life — humbly devoted his life to prayer, serving the Lord and comforting the sick and afflicted. Through his intercession prayers to St. Joseph, many received God’s healing power.
Born Alfred Bessette in Saint-Grégoire d’Iberville, Quebec on August 9, 1845 (the eighth child of Isaac and Clothilde Bessette’s 10 children), he was orphaned by the time he was 12. He received little formal education. However in 1870, he entered the Holy Cross Novitiate, where he took the name André in honor of his childhood priest, Fr. André Provençal, who presented him to Holy Cross for discernment. In 1871, he was assigned as the doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, a post he held until 1909. St. André often prayed with the sick, whom he met at the door, to St. Joseph as an intercessor. Soon many miraculous healings were attributed to his prayers and large crowds came to see him.
St. André always gave credit to God and St. Joseph. His devotion was to St. Joseph. St. André’s strong faith and devotion eventually led to the building St. Joseph’s Oratory — Canada’s largest church.
St. André Bessette died in Montreal on January 6, 1937. It is estimated that more than a million people made the pilgrimage to the Oratory to pay their respects. He was beatified on May 23, 1982, and canonized in October 2010, becoming the Congregation of Holy Cross’ first saint. Worldwide the Holy Cross community observes St. André’s Feast Day on Jan. 7, because the Vatican and many nations observe the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6.
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. Father André Provençal 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 priests and brothers 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, St. Joseph continues to be invoked as a patron, especially for the brothers.
St. André Bessette had a special devotion to St. Joseph, Jesus’ foster father. 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 St. Joseph statue. In giving this oil to the sick, St. André always insisted that the hoped-for healing was the work of St. Joseph and not himself. He promised to pray to God through St. Joseph’s intercession.
St. 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 Doorkeeper
St. André’s principal work for many years was as a porter at the College of Notre Dame. Br. André liked to say, “When I first came to the college, I was shown to the door … and I remained there for forty years!” 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.
Healings were frequent, and visitors always found solace and grace in St. 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.
He was becoming known as a miracle worker, but St. André insisted all the more, “I am nothing … only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. 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
St. André Bessette’s hope for a more substantial shrine to St. 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. The first shelter was constructed in 1904, and was enlarged in 1912. In 1909, he was assigned full-time as the caretaker. Construction on what would become known as St. 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.
St. André spent his days seeing sick people who came to the church; he spent his evenings visiting those who could not make the trip to him. By the 1920s, Brother André hosted more than one million pilgrims annually and hundreds of cures were attributed to his prayers every year.
When St. André died in 1937, his body lay in state and more than a million people climbed the slope of Mount Royal to honor him. St. André is entombed at the Oratory. Today, it 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 St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and patron of laborers and families.
Prayer to St. André Bessette
Lord, our God,
Friend of the lowly,
you gave your servant, St. André Bessette,
a great devotion to St. Joseph and a special commitment to the poor and afflicted.
Through his intercession, help us to follow his example of prayer and love
and so come to share with him in your glory.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, the Lord.
St. André, pray for us.