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Rising above a hill in Montreal known as Mount Royal, there stands one of the largest cathedrals in the world – the Oratory of Saint Joseph. Its great height of 361 feet is matched by its massive girth, which is large enough to hold within itself many of the world largest shrines. If one were to ask who built this magnificent house of God, he would be told “Brother André.”
Small in stature, unassuming in appearance and manner, Brother André Bessette was great in the Kingdom of God. On October 17th the Catholic Church will canonize this unassuming porter whose miraculous ministry to the sick and needy earned him the title “the miracle man of Montreal.”
Born in a pious rural family in Montreal, Canada in 1845, Alfred Bessette was a frail child whose poor health and chronic indigestion carried over into youth and old age, up to his death at the age of 91.
In his youth he met Father Andre Provencal, who inspired the devotion to Saint Joseph that became the hallmark of the young saint. It was at this time that he formed the lifelong habit of immersing himself in prayer for hours before the Blessed Sacrament, many times in long, deep conversation with Saint Joseph.
When he was 18 years old he emigrated to the milder climate of New England, where he worked at various jobs wandering from town to town. Yet even then all his spare time was spent in prayer. One day while stopping to rest from his work in a field, he asked Saint Joseph where he would die. In his mind’s eye he saw a large building he had never seen before – but which he saw in person many years later: the College of Notre Dame where he became the porter of this very building.
In 1870 Brother André determined to join the Congregation of the Holy Cross, armed with an introductory letter from Father Provancal which said, “I am sending a saint to your Congregation.” Despite the chronic health which threatened his continued residence in the community, in 1872 Brother André was received into the novitiate the same month that Pope Pius IX proclaimed Saint Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church. Assigned as the porter of the College, in later years he quipped “My superiors showed me the door and I stayed there.”
He quickly became a beloved friend of the students, whom he taught “What the Holy Spirit did for the Apostles, He will do for you.“ He realized this in his ownlife, and soon his reputation as a miracle worker began to grown among the students of the college. One day, as the pious porter was scrubbing the floor in the parlor of the college, a lady came to see him, having heard of his reputation. She was so afflicted with rheumatism that she could only walk with the assistance of two men supporting her by holding each arm. Her request to Brother André was simple enough: “I am suffering from rheumatism. I want you to heal me.” Not looking up from the floor he was still busily scrubbing, Brother André said to the men assisting her, “Let her walk.” The woman walked out unassisted.
As the school’s doorkeeper, Brother André saluted and bid farewell to the many guests who came to the college. Having a keen interest in their spiritual welfare and a sympathetic ear for their problems, the little doorman could often tell who was in need of his prayers or counsel. One day he noticed on the face of a guest — the father of a boarding student — a preoccupied, strained expression. When Brother André learned that the man was worried about his sick wife, he told him, “But she is not so sick as you think. At this very moment she became better.” The man was quite cynical, for he knew that his wife had been ill for many years. Yet upon arriving home, his wife greeted him at the door, perfectly healthy, in good spirits, and inquiring about the couple’s children. The man later learned, upon speaking with his wife’s nurse, that she had asked to be taken out of bed exactly when Brother André pronounced the words, “At this very moment, she became better.”
It is no wonder that over the years the saint’s reputation grew by leaps and bounds. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and unbelievers – flocked to him for the healing of their souls and bodies. Often this was affected through “Saint Joseph’s oil,” a mixture that Brother André rubbed on wounds and sick limbs after burning it before a statue of Saint Joseph.
Although all claimed the miracles were worked through the humble porter’s faith, he himself scoffed at these claims and felt he only did the work of Christ. Many times this meant that the blind would remain blind and the lame would remain lame, but that Christ would finally enter into their lives.
If Brother André had any mission, he said, it was to teach devotion to Saint Joseph. In 1890 he conceived the desire to honor Saint Joseph by the construction of a great shrine on the mountain by the College. The saga of the construction of this huge cathedral is a miracle in itself, and can be read in detail in the newly published biography “Brother André” by Jean-Guy Dubuc.
The pillars of Saint Joseph are draped with hundreds of crutches and other prosthetics that testify to Brother André’s God-given power to free the crippled and diseased from their maladies. Today the saint’s relics lie in a black marble sepulchre in the back of the Oratory. And the grand cathedral is itself a living spokesman of the great message of Brother André’s life: “Ite ad Joseph – go to Joseph!”
Pope John Paul II said, “We venerate in Blessed Brother André a man of prayer and a friend of the poor, a truly astonishing man...In each age the Holy Spirit raises up such humble witnesses of the Gospel, who turn things topsy-turvy.”