A most unexpected saint
Image: Wikimedia Commons
THREE MINUTES WITH THE SAINTS by Paul Combs
The first two installments of “Three Minutes With the Saints” (my semi-penitential Monday response to my Sunday Rant series) were of saints you have probably heard of. Today I’m profiling one that few outside of Canada will recognize, precisely because he needs to be more widely known. Let’s meet Saint Andre Bessette, the Miracle Man of Montreal.
Born Alfred Bessette in Mont-Saint-Grégoire, Quebec, Canada on August 9, 1845, he was a man no one would have predicted would become a saint, except for his parish priest, who saw it from the beginning. At the age of 12 he was forced to leave school to go to work after both of his parents died. He spent the rest of his life virtually unable to read or write.
At 22 he moved to the United States, where he worked in a number of manual labor positions, none of which lasted long due to his chronic stomach ailments. A few years later, he returned to Canada and attempted to join the Brothers of the Holy Cross. He carried a note with him from his pastor which read “I am sending you a saint.” The brothers found this hard to believe, and after a year essentially asked him to leave because of his chronic illnesses. He appealed to the bishop and was allowed to join the congregation.
After his final vows, Brother Andre was sent to Notre Dame College in Montreal, which was a school for boys aged 7 to 12, as a porter. His responsibilities included answering the door, welcoming guests, waking up the children each day, and delivering mail. He later joked that “at the end of my novitiate, my superiors showed me the door and I stayed there for 40 years.”
What Brother Andre lacked in formal education he more than made up for in piety, prayer, and a devotion to Saint Joseph. Whenever he heard someone was ill, he would visit them and pray with them, and word of healing powers began to spread. By the end of his life, he needed four secretaries to help answer the 80,000 letters he received each year.
His life’s goal, however, was to build a chapel to honor Saint Joseph on Mount Royal, which was near the school. in 1904, he finally asked the archbishop of Montreal if he could begin work on the chapel. The archbishop refused to go into debt (a wise man indeed) and told Brother Andre he could only build what he had money for; at that point he had $200 saved from giving haircuts to the students and some donations toward the project.
With that meager amount, he did what few of us would have: he started building. He built a small wooden shelter fifteen feet by eighteen feet, and built more as funds became available. Without ever going into debt, he added walls, a roof, heating, and a paved road up the mountain. Finally, he built a shelter for the pilgrims who visited and a place where he could live as he tended to the shrine. Many people experienced healing and renewal on the mountaintop, for which he always credited God and Saint Joseph.
Toward the end of his life, he began building a basilica on the mountain, but work was not completed before his death on January 6, 1937, at the age of 91. The basilica was ultimately finished and stands to this day as a testimony to his devotion to Saint Joseph and his trust in God. It attracts over two million visitors every year.
Brother Andre was canonized on October 17, 2010, by Pope Benedict XVI. He is, fittingly, the patron saint of the rejected. His humility, piety, and dogged determination in the face of overwhelming odds is an example to all of us today that sainthood is not achieved in the big moments, but in the small, day to day activities done with love and care. Start where you are, start small and even with limited resources, but start regardless.
St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal today. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)