The 'Miracle Man' of Mount Royal

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8/27/2010

Knights of Columbus, 10,000 strong, made a pilgrimage to the Crypt of St. Joseph on Mount Royal, in 1921.

This archived Columbia article was originally printed in October 1921. Click here to view the original version.

ON THE FLAT-TOPPED CREST OF COTE-DES-NEIGES, which itself stands like a watchful bodyguard of the great Mount Royal, a squatwalled, graystone church looks down upon the long, winding and intricately split streets that form the island of Montreal. The church is what is known in the United States as a basement church — the solid understructure erected by devout and optimistic parishioners who know that with patience and persistent generosity a noble edifice will rise upon the nucleus house of God. Ten years ago this broad crypt had not been made; a simple wooden hut, its rear wall the native rock of Cote-des-Neiges, was all that stood upon the barren face of the hill. Now, the stone crypt is the object of thousands of pilgrims at every season of the year; to it there come by every mail stacks of letters from all parts of the Province of Quebec and from many unexpected and remote places of the world-and the letters are all addressed to one man.

Seventy-six years old, short and spare of stature, with the thin, ill-shaven face and tousled thatch of one who cares naught for personal appearance, but this unpromising aspect of ill-groomedness, with shiny-seamed soutane and too-wide Roman collar relieved by dancing gray eyes and a strangely childish smile — Frère André, known to Canadian vital statistics as André Bessette of Saint Cesaire, Quebec, is the man who has made the crypt of St. Joseph on Cote-des-Neiges.

Only when he had reached the biblical limit of seventy years did Frère André commence to achieve the quiet fame that now brings tens of thousands of Canadians to see him every year. In 1870 he entered the congregation of the Holy Cross at Montreal. He was a simple lay brother. In all these Catholic religious congregations the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity are taken, and humility is always connoted; but nobody is more humble in station than the lay brethren. They do the manual work, the less skilled work, of the congregations.

FRÈRE ANDRÉ BECAME PORTER at the seminary of the Holy Cross, which stands at the foot of Cote-des-Neiges. For decades he went the round of his simple duties, opening and closing doors, attending to callers, polishing and dusting and doing all manner of hewing of wood and drawing of water. His superiors saw nothing remarkable in the little French Canadian brother, excepting, perhaps, that feast days made little difference to Frère André's diet and holidays simply meant that the brother from Saint-Cesaire took longer walks and made longer meditations.

Some would chide him for the long periods he spent on his knees. Then, after a time, they observed that he did not frequent the general chapel. Instead, with the aid of another brother — the carpenter of the institution — Frère André had erected a rude, wooden church — hardly anything better than a night-watchman's hut — on Cote-des-Neiges. There he worshiped, having placed in the hut a little statue of St. Joseph to which had been attributed miraculous powers by the brothers who had received it from the first brothers of the Holy Cross to come to Canada from France. In 1892 Brother Alderic and Père Geoffrion, the superior of the seminary, had planted a medal of St. Joseph under a tall pine beside the spot where Frère André 's little chapel had been built.

Minims — or novices of the order — attracted by Frère André 's quietly devout demeanor, visited the little crypt. When their parents came to the seminary they took them to the crypt. Gradually, nobody knows the exact time — but quite gradually visitors commenced to attribute beneficial incidents in their lives to their visits to the crypt. The circle of visitors enlarged and Frère André put rude benches into his hut. Unexpected cures of minor ailments, then of serious infirmities, were reported by visitors to the crypt; sudden acquisition of material goods, and sudden avoidance of impending misfortune were also attributed to the miraculous character of the crypt and the little man who tended it.

THESE REPORTS FINALLY REACHED the ears of Archbishop Bruchesi of Montreal. His Grace was frankly skeptical — or at least in a frame of mind where he would not permit an institution claiming miraculous properties to exist in his diocese without conducting a rigid examination of its claims. He paid a personal visit to Frère André and the crypt. Perhaps the Archbishop feared that some mesmeric power had been exerted on the hundreds of those who had visited the crypt and professed miraculous benefits in virtue of their visitation.

He found that Frère André was a simple, happy lay brother, who did not even lead worshipers in their worship — being a lay brother; but who urged upon all worshipers to pay special homage to St. Joseph who, by the way, is the patron saint of Canada. The Archbishop asked the questions that an Archbishop is entitled to ask, for a request had been made for the Archbishop to grant the privilege of the tabernacle (repository of the Host) to the oratory. The Archbishop drove back to his palace, and Frère André returned to his altar of St. Joseph to pray for the intercession of the saint in behalf of the innumerable persons who had written to him or come to beg him for aid.

But here is what Archbishop Bruchesi himself has pronounced regarding the general character of Frère André 's oratory and crypt: "Shall I say that miracles are wrought in this shrine of St. Joseph? If I denied that such was the case, the ex-votive offerings in yonder pyramids would belie my words. I need make no investigation, I am convinced extraordinary occurrences have taken place; corporal cures, perhaps, although it; is quite easy to suffer illusion in such cases, and spiritual cures still greater have been wrought here. Sinners have come here, have prayed, and after prayer confessed their iniquities and gone away at peace with God."

AND THE ARCHBISHOP'S SPECIAL COMMISSION, comprising three priests of other parts of the diocese, declared in its report: "As to the miracles the faithful affirm they have seen wrought before their eyes, the commission withholds passing judgment, before such time as each has been thoroughly examined and before the most reliable certificates are presented, as for instance, at Lourdes."

Which shows that the Church does not readily accept stories of miracles. A bishop is decidedly from Missouri when reports reach him of such occurrences in his diocese. The harm that might be wrought by a spurious miracle worker would far outweigh the good a genuine miracle shrine may do.

But you will find evidence in the crypt of St. Joseph at Cote-des-Neiges. There are trusses and crutches piled there as at Lourdes — not as numerous as at Lourdes — but testifying to similar miraculous cures; and the certificates of physicians are not wanting — reputable physicians who in some cases have no Christian faith to prejudice them in favor of the crypt; and, as a matter of fact, the Christian physician's eagerness to indorse miracle shrines is in inverse ratio to his devotion as a Christian.

Daily at the shrine, crowds will visit it to pay honor to St. Joseph and to plead with little Frère André to intercede for them. This humble brother is the first to laugh at the appellation "Miracle Man."

"It is St, Joseph who does these things." he teaches: "I am like you, simply a suppliant,"

But the response to suppliance hinges to no small extent even in reason let alone in faith. on the merits of the supplicant. Frère André is unquestionably a man of saintly life. Many clever and astute persons have expected to find him a learned, shrewd man, probably sincere. but unquestionably business-like. Not a cent in any form is exacted or accepted by Frère André from those seeking his offices as porter of the crypt of St. Joseph. He is sworn to a vow of poverty; he is an ascetic who has sworn the same habit and the same dusty hat for fifteen years. He has about his a heavenly humor and serenity and the simple, gushing childishness of those who walk with God, I think the person he most resembles is Marshal Foch — the two men have the same translucent gray of eye, and the same energy of speech and motion.

From the pulpit in the crypt you will hear, every day, a priest read out the intentions of the young and old— the girls seeking faithful swains and heartsick youths appealing for ease. “For a person who is threatened with death by cancer,” the priest intones, “Of a troubled wife for the conversion of a husband of intemperate habits, of a merchant who is near bankruptcy,” etc., etc. And through the long hours of the night Frère André is on his knees before the statue of his beloved St. Joseph, praying for these things.

Some day this church on the mountainside, successor to the little wooden oratory of Frère André will be the glorious basilica of St. Joseph, and the little miracle man of Mount Royal will probably be enshrined as the saint which every soul in Quebec believes him to be.