In October 1921, a Columbia article titled “The ‘Miracle Man’ of Mount Royal” noted that “Knights of Columbus, 10,000 strong, made a pilgrimage to the Crypt of St. Joseph” earlier that year. The article, which praised the saintliness of the “humble lay brother” known as Frère André, prophetically concluded with these words: “Someday 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.”
Now, 92 years later, Brother André Bessette is the first Canadian-born male saint as of his canonization by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 17, 2010.
Brother André shared a close connection with the Knights of Columbus during his lifetime, and he serves as a model for Knights today as they grow in charity and devote themselves more closely to St. Joseph.
Brother André was born Alfred Bessette on Aug. 9, 1845, in Saint-Grégoire d’Iberville, Quebec. He was the ninth of 13 children and suffered from many health ailments during his youth. Amid these periods of sickness, Alfred’s mother instilled in him a devotion to Jesus, Mary and Joseph — and he became the subject of misunderstanding and ridicule. At the age of nine, Alfred lost his father to a work-related accident. His mother died three years later of tuberculosis. Separated from his brothers and sisters, Alfred began living with an aunt and uncle, Timothée and Marie-Rosalie Nadeau of Saint-Césaire.
Although they probably never met, Brother André and the Knights’ founder, Father Michael J. McGivney, shared much in common as spiritual brothers. Both were born in the mid-19th century to poor families; both suffered from fragile health throughout their lives; and both devoted themselves to the poor and the needy. Young Alfred Bessette even spent some time in New England states including Connecticut, where he labored in a textile mill before returning to Canada in 1867. A year later, Michael McGivney likewise traveled from Connecticut to Quebec, where he entered the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe, located about 40 miles east of what would become the site of St. Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal.
Alfred entered the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal on Dec. 27, 1870. His permanent presence in this teaching community seemed far from certain, especially given his frail health and lack of formal education. The latter was evident in the tasks he was given. Upon entering the community, Brother André became the doorman of Notre Dame College and also served as a nurse, barber, caretaker and even gravedigger.
Through his duties at the school, Brother André was asked to receive visitors, including many sick people seeking solace and help. Françoise Deroy-Pineau wrote in her biography, Frère André, un saint parmi nous (Brother André, A Saint Among Us), “His job as a light maintenance man put him in charge of handling the oil that burned in front of the altar and certain statues, especially the statue of St. Joseph.” A symbol of faith and prayer when it is used by the sick, this oil would come to play a significant role in Brother André’s work. Like the St. Joseph medals that he carried, the oil often accompanied the healings and the miracles that Brother André attributed to St. Joseph’s intercession.
As word spread of a healing religious figure at Notre Dame College, people began to visit Brother André. At first, he greeted them at the school, which caused irritation among his colleagues and the parents of students there. This, in turn, gave rise to a spirited opposition that made Brother André the target of many jeers. Some people began calling him a “crazy old man,” a “charlatan” or even the “oily brother.”
Brother André stands with a delegation of the Knights of Columbus, including then-Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty (front left), during a K of C pilgrimage to the Crypt of St. Joseph’s Oratory in April 1921. (Photo courtesy of St. Joseph’s Oratory Archives)
In 1895, when a tramway line was constructed in front of Notre Dame, at the base of Mont-Royal, and a shelter was built to receive travelers, Brother André obtained permission to greet the sick people who arrived at the station. According to one biographer, Micheline Lachance, he began greeting as many as 300 visitors per day. In thanksgiving for the many favors obtained through St. Joseph’s intercession, Brother André began forming a plan to build an oratory dedicated to the earthly father of Jesus.
The gifts he received from many of his grateful visitors allowed Brother André to erect a wooden chapel on Mount Royal in 1904. Several expansion projects followed. Construction of the “Crypt,” the first phase of the oratory, began in 1915, but Brother André encountered numerous difficulties while planning future expansions. The economic crisis caused by the stock market crash of 1929 forced the worksite to close from 1931-37. Despite this and other obstacles, Brother André remained steadfast in his vision.
Brother André died on Jan. 6, 1937, without seeing the oratory complete. The building was not finished until 1967, but at the time of Brother André’s death 30 years earlier, his work was already known beyond the borders of Quebec and Canada.
He was beatified May 23, 1982, by Pope John Paul II, and nearly 2 million people visit St. Joseph’s Oratory each year.
Father Jean-Guy Dubuc, a priest of the Diocese of Montreal, is one of many writers who have discussed Brother André’s timidity and modesty. In his book Brother Andre: Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of St. Joseph, he noted that Brother André “hated to be photographed and was loath to be interviewed.”
There were, however, some notable exceptions. In her biography of Brother André, Deroy-Pineau wrote that the friar liked to be photographed with his friends, among whom she lists the Knights of Columbus.
On April 16, 1923, the daily Montreal newspaper La Presse published a large group photo of more than 300 members of Lafontaine Council 1356 who were visiting the Crypt of St. Joseph on pilgrimage. Father Édouard Laurin, who gave the homily during the Mass, noted that “the spirit of faith is lacking in a large number of families that have nonetheless received religious instruction.” He urged the Knights to be worthy of their name, to pray, to lead by example and, if necessary, to bring non-believers back to the faith by asking St. Joseph to inspire in them the same spirit of conviction experienced by the child Jesus while under his care.
Between 1916 and 1935, there were no fewer than 11 K of C pilgrimages that originated from as close as Quebec and as far away as California. One entry in the oratory archives notes a “visit of the Knights of Columbus” on Aug. 8, 1923. “Twelve buses and more than 200 automobiles brought [the Knights] to the ceremony at 3 p.m. Veneration of the relic went on uninterrupted from 3:30 to 5:30.”
Knights today are as close to Brother André as they were nearly a century ago. At the Order’s 128th Supreme Convention, held Aug. 3-5, 2010, in Washington, D.C., delegates adopted a resolution in honor of Brother André’s canonization. The resolution read, in part, that “Knights of Columbus will learn from Brother André and from St. Joseph what it is to care for Jesus through acts of charity for the sick and the afflicted” and that Knights “will honor the vision of Brother André through a commitment to charity, unity and fraternity.”
During a homily at the oratory on the feast of St. Joseph, Archbishop André Gaumond of Sherbrooke, Quebec, spoke of St. Joseph as “the quiet man, while in today’s society we have all become very talkative.” The archbishop, who is a member of St-Pamphile (Quebec) Council 3075, added, “St. Joseph understands his historic mission by depending on faith.”
These traits found in St. Joseph are mirrored in the personality of Brother André and in the work performed by the Knights of Columbus. More often than not, these works of faith are accomplished discreetly and far away from the public eye.
Brother André was “a man who distinguished himself by his fraternal hospitality,” wrote Holy Cross Father Jean-Guy Vincent in one article. “Throughout his life, he welcomed all kinds of suffering people, and he showed them great compassion. … Brother André was an active witness, a welcoming host, a man of compassion, a man of prayer, a builder and unifier of people,” added Father Vincent, who is a member of Pointe Claire (Quebec) Council 4832.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote, “If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). The compassion of Brother André was a living expression of this virtue of charity, which is also the first principle of the Knights of Columbus. The man who made Montreal the worldwide capital of devotion to St. Joseph embodied, even while he was living, this civilization of love that we are called to embrace each day.
Marc Nadeau is the past grand knight of Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours Council 9825 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and works in the field of communications and public affairs.
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